Updated at 5:35 p.m. ET on 2015-10-27
President Joko Widodo is due back in Indonesia on Thursday after curtailing his first state visit to the United States in order to deal with a haze crisis from forest fires across his country, the presidential palace said.
Jokowi, as he is popularly known, was to leave Washington D.C. late Tuesday (local time) and return home directly. He cancelled the second leg of his planned four-day trip, setting aside efforts to stoke investor interest in Indonesia, whose economy has flagged during his year-old presidency.
He was scheduled to visit tech giants Google and Apple and investment fund managers in California. Instead, the president will fly straight to Jambi, a province on Sumatra island, or to Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, to inspect the fires and haze up close, palace officials said.
“I’ve decided to shorten my trip to America and quickly return home,” Jokowi announced via Twitter shortly before meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday, a day after arriving in the United States.
The Indonesian government may also declare a national emergency over the fires, which have raged for weeks and have sent smoke from Indonesia to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday.
“The problem is too big,” Kalla said. “We are now considering [it].”
Indonesia has been widely criticized in the region for allowing the situation to go on and recur yearly. During the first two days of his American trip, Jokowi was under domestic pressure to cut short his visit. Indonesians criticized him for making the trip in the middle of the crisis, but citizens on Tuesday welcomed the news of his imminent return.
Dewi Meini, a resident of Pekanbaru City, on Sumatra, said she hoped the president’s attentiveness to the crisis would ease the burden endured by locals.
“It’s been like this for two months, hasn’t it? How many masks have we gone through, oxygen, air purifiers as well. Not to mention the amount of time spent cooped up at home,” she complained to BenarNews.
‘For the sake of our future generations’
Air pollution from illegal fires used to clear land for agriculture and palm oil plantations in Indonesia has been a regional irritant for two decades, but this year’s haze problem is set to be the worst on record, due to an extended dry season.
In comments from the White House on Monday, Jokowi acknowledged the climatic impact of the fires.
“We’ve had a thorough discussion with President Obama on the issue of climate change. We also agreed to work together in addressing the issue, for the sake of our future generations. Especially in Indonesia, we have a big challenge right now. We have peat fires, and the efforts to extinguish it is quite challenging,” Jokowi said, according to a transcript of his translated remarks released by the White House.
The fires, usually confined to Sumatra and Kalimantan, are now burning on other islands and regions of the sprawling archipelago, including Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua.
The resultant haze has forced school closures, caused illness and disrupted economic activity from southern Thailand to the Philippines. Late last week, it finally reached Jakarta – the capital city usually spared from the annual air-borne menace.
“Now more than a half million people have acute respiratory infections. If the rain doesn’t fall soon, will the government be able to continue giving medical care if more people collapse?” Nanang Subana, director of Oxfam in Indonesia, told BenarNews.
“The long-term impact could also be serious illness such as lung cancer. The government needs to anticipate potential secondary hazards like this,” Nanang added.
As of late last week, this year’s fires had killed 10 Indonesians, made a half million people in six provinces ill, and affected some 43 million Indonesians, according to the National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB).
The spread of the fires, even as neighboring countries are helping to extinguish existing ones, has underlined what environmental activists say is weak oversight and a lack of legal deterrents, especially towards large companies involved in the burning.
“As we see in this crisis time when the smoke is really bad, legal measures taken by the ministries of forestry and the environment are really disappointing,” said Musri Nauli, director of the Indonesian environmental group Walhi in Jambi.
In coming days, Walhi and the Indonesian Advocates Association (Peradi) plan to file a class action lawsuit against the government over the fires.
“[Jambi] police have released a list of suspects, but the strange thing is, we don’t recognize the names on that list,” Musri said.
Large companies that activists believe are behind the burning are not among them, he said.
Indonesia’s palm oil industry has expanded rapidly. In 2013, palm oil plantations covered 13.5 million hectares (33.4 million acres), according to Sawit Watch, an Indonesian non-governmental organization. Palm oil is used in food, household products, and cosmetics.
And Indonesia’s government has set a goal of 28 million hectares (69.2 million acres) of palm oil plantations by 2020.
“That is why the burning continues,” Musri said.
Riko Kurniawan, the Walhi executive director in Riau, just north of Jambi, said law enforcement and government officials in his province were becoming bolder in taking legal action against perpetrators. Eleven suspects are currently on trial, he said.
“The problem now is with the courts,” he told BenarNews. Trials result in weak charges and light sentences.
“The judges and prosecutors appear to be unaware of environmental law. Purposefully or not, their understanding is weak so that in the end the sentence is light, or there’s no legal consequence at all,” he said.
According to Musri, "the fight against corporations is complex. They have a lot of capital, and that can be very influential,” he said.
“We can see how much they support the senior officials who visit the areas impacted by smoke. Corporate officials always greet important [visiting] government officials. Corporate logos even appear at the fire stations,” he added.
Meanwhile, the behavior of some judges is eroding the credibility of the courtroom, Riko said.
He recalled the case of a judge in an environmental suit in Riau’s Bengkalis District Court who was called to account for spending leisure time with defendants in the case.
Dewi Safitri contributed to this report.