Indonesian President Joko warns of forest fires as hot spots detected

JAKARTA (REUTERS) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Monday (Feb 22) that the local authorities should get prepared for potential forest fires later this year as hot spots have been detected on the island of Sumatra.

The South-east Asian country suffered some of the biggest tropical forest fires outside of the Amazon and Congo in recent years, putting at risk endangered animals like orangutans and tigers and sending choking haze across the region.

State news agency Antara, citing a meteorology official, reported that the number of hot spots in Riau province on Sumatra island has jumped to 63 as at Monday, from nine a day earlier.

“Ninety-nine per cent of forest fires are perpetrated by humans, whether intentional or out of negligence,” Mr Joko said in a virtual meeting with officials.

Farmers often used fire as a cheap land clearing method, the President said, calling on local governments to get forest fire containment infrastructure ready.

Mr Joko said Sumatra is facing a rising risk of forest fires this month and warned that the Kalimantan region on Borneo island, as well as Sulawesi island, could also start seeing forest fires in May to July, with the peak expected in the August to September period.

The President said the fires could cause considerable financial losses and “not to mention the damage to our ecology and ecosystem”.

Fires, sometimes set to clear land for oil palm plantations in the world’s top producer of the commodity, were the most damaging in years in 2015, with the World Bank estimating they caused US$16.1 billion (S$21.3 billion) of damage.

Meanwhile, fires in 2019 caused total damage and economic loss amounting to at least US$5.2 billion, equal to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product, the World Bank said.