• Indonesian farmers still burning plantations to clear land
  • Indonesia says smoke remains challenge in deploying choppers

Indonesia, which set a deadline two weeks ago to put out forest fires that have covered parts of Southeast Asia with haze, said it’s difficult to push for a timeline with farmers still burning to clear land and unpredictable weather patterns.

“I can’t give a date,” said Willem Rampangilei, head of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Authority. “It depends on the weather. I will try my hardest and try to be as quick as possible.”

President Joko Widodo’s recent trip to Sumatra island for a progress check was cut short as the smoke was so thick his plane couldn’t land, forcing him back to the capital.

Exacerbated by dry conditions from El Nino, the haze has blown across Southeast Asia, blanketing Singapore, parts of Indonesia and Malaysia in a smog that has caused these areas to close schools and suspend outdoor events. In parts of Indonesia, people were forced to flee their homes.

“One challenge is that farmers are still burning,” Rampangilei said. “We all know that burning is cheap and makes the soil more fertile.”

Open to Help

Indonesia has threatened to punish the palm oil and other plantation companies whose land is ablaze and send soldiers in to help fight the fires. The country has turned down offers from Singapore and Malaysia to help, in part because its own helicopters couldn’t take off because of the smoke.

“We are not allergic to outside help,” Rampangilei said. “We are happy to get offers. But we have to see how much that assistance can actually be deployed.”

In Singapore, a banking group has embarked on a review of ethical lending practices as the haze envelops the city for a fifth week. The Association of Banks in Singapore said Monday its members are working on measures that will improve responsible lending, without spelling out specifics, while the central bank said those guidelines will be issued “soon.” Only four major banks in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have embedded environmental factors as part of their credit-decision process, the World Wildlife Fund said in a May report.

Jokowi’s maneuverability is limited by a decentralized system of government put in place in 2001 in the world’s largest archipelago that has coalesced power around local officials and potentially made it harder to tackle corruption on the ground. There’s also been little effort over the years to address a complex system of overlapping land permits where forest is illegally burned to claim ownership and increase the value to sell for plantations.

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