As haze pervades, Indonesia targets corporations for agricultural fires

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
As haze pervades, Indonesia targets corporations for agricultural fires Customers chat at an outdoor restaurant overlooking downtown Kuala Lumpur shrouded in haze, Oct. 3, 2023.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Indonesia has sealed off land owned by nearly a dozen companies accused of burning forests in the ecologically sensitive South Sumatra province as haze from these fires spreads domestically and to neighboring countries.

The Indonesian environment ministry is preparing to take legal action including possibly bringing criminal charges against the companies, said Rasio Ridho Sani, the director general of law enforcement at the ministry. He named the companies by their initials.

“We will use all the law enforcement tools we have, whether they are administrative, civil or criminal,” Rasio said in a statement. “We will not stop cracking down on forest and land fire offenders.”

Offenders can face heavy penalties, including lengthy imprisonment and hefty fines, but lax enforcement means frequent fires scorch vast swaths of forest every year in Southeast Asia’s largest country. 

Earlier in the week, meanwhile, Malaysia’s environment minister said he asked Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations to collaborate on actions because air quality had worsened in Malaysian cities.

“We cannot keep going back to having haze as something normal,” Nik Nazmi bin Nik Ahmad said.

Indonesia reportedly said it hadn’t recently detected any smoke drifting into Malaysia.

Nonetheless, the country’s forestry and environment ministry began targeting the corporations that it says caused the ongoing round of fires.

Its latest actions target 11 companies that controlled forest areas spanning more than 24,000 acres in South Sumatra, said Ardy Nugroho, the ministry’s director of administrative supervision and sanctions.

“The number of locations to be sealed off will increase because the ministry’s team is analyzing hotspot data and satellite imagery,” he said. 

South Sumatra’s Disaster Management Agency said it had found many fire spots in Ogan Ilir and Ogan Komering Ilir regencies. 

“The lands that burned were mostly peatlands and plantations,” the agency said Thursday.

The transboundary haze is a recurring problem in Southeast Asia that persists despite regional agreements and cooperation. 

An aerial view shows the Ampera Bridge over the Musi River amid haze from an ongoing wildfire in Palembang, South Sumatra, on Sept. 14, 2023.
An aerial view shows the Ampera Bridge over the Musi River amid haze from an ongoing wildfire in Palembang, South Sumatra, on Sept. 14, 2023. [Al Zulfikli/AFP]

In 2002, all the member states of the ASEAN bloc signed an agreement on transboundary haze pollution that pledged to prevent and monitor it by sharing information and taking legal and other actions against those responsible for the fires. 

However, the agreement has been largely ineffective, as the fires return almost every year. 

The worst haze episode in recent history was in 2015, when smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia traveled hundreds of miles to densely populated cities, causing respiratory illnesses, school and business closures, flight cancellations, and reduced visibility.

Indonesian authorities said 24 people had died as a direct result of the fire.

But a subsequent study by Harvard and Columbia Universities used a mathematical model to estimate that the smoke exposure from the fires caused 100,300 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. 

In 2019, Indonesia said some forest fires in its territory started on land used by subsidiaries of Malaysian palm oil companies, as the neighbors traded blame.

But a year later, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo ordered the forestry ministry to crack down on forest fires and address the haze problem.

Uli Arta Siagian, the forest and plantation campaign manager at Indonesian Environmental Forum, an NGO that promotes environmental justice, said Indonesia still had problems enforcing court decisions against companies involved in forest fires. 

She said courts had found some companies in Riau province guilty of environmental damage, but they did not pay fines or restore forests as ordered, casting doubt on the efficacy of the current crackdown in South Sumatra. 

“If the central government does not make sure they pay up, the court decisions are useless,” she added.

Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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