Indonesia’s government has been criticized as insensitive for launching a social media campaign to promote palm oil at a time when forest fires – often blamed on clearing land for plantations – are raging on Sumatra and Borneo islands, sending a pall of smoke over neighboring countries.
The Ministry of Communications and Information, backed by online influencers, launched the Sawit Baik (Palm Oil is Good) campaign on Monday, with a discussion at a Jakarta hotel on the benefits of the crop.
“The government launching a Sawit Baik campaign at a time when many people are suffering from smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan, demonstrates a lack of empathy with the plight of the people,” Nur Hidayati, executive director of the National Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO, told reporters.
Indonesians on social media immediately condemned the campaign.
“Can you even really say this is simply a case of ‘bad timing’ from our government’s part? 'Cause, you know, #SawitBaik kind of looks like officials are a bit dense about what's literally happening in the country right now,” Sheany Yasuko, a Twitter user, posted online.
“If the government can sacrifice the general population’s respiratory health for local tobacco farmers and conglomerates, of course it can do so for an export industry like palm oil,” wrote another Twitter user, Rocky Intan.
But Septriana Tangkary, a director for economic information at the communications ministry, said palm oil was the largest foreign exchange earner in 2017, valued at U.S. $23 billion.
“Palm oil has many benefits. Soap contains palm but in Indonesia it is mostly turned into crude palm oil,” she said.
The Twitter account for the campaign, @sawitbaikid, said it sought to provide “comprehensive information about Indonesian palm oil” and respond to negative campaigns against it. It said the effort was backed by the Indonesian Oil Palm Plantation Fund Management Agency (BPDPKS) and government ministries.
Jokowi: ‘This must have been organized’
On Tuesday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo inspected an area devastated by the fires in Riau province and took part in an Islamic ritual to pray for rain at the airbase in the city of Pekanbaru.
“If we look at the extent of the fires, this must have been organized,” Jokowi said, urging authorities to prioritize prevention.
Police said Monday they had identified five palm oil companies as suspects in connection with the forest and plantation fires on Sumatra and Borneo. In total, police have named almost 200 people as suspects linked to fires.
The National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said Tuesday that officials had detected 2,984 hot spots across Sumatra and Borneo.
Authorities were deploying almost 6,000 additional personnel on top of more than 9,000 already on the ground fighting the fires, BNPB said on Monday.
Neighboring Malaysia had closed 671 schools and distributed half a million face masks in Sarawak last week as smoke from the fires raised concerns about public health. The Malaysian education ministry said about 460,000 students had been affected.
As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sri Aman town in Sarawak state, near Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, has reached hazardous level with reading of 395 air pollutants, almost four times the 100 benchmark, according to 24-hour Air Pollutant Index of Malaysia.
At least 30 areas in five states – Selangor, Perak, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Negri Sembilan – have recorded unhealthy air quality readings ranging from 102 to 187.
Meanwhile, more than 2,600 people were reported suffering from respiratory problems as a result of the haze, Indonesian officials said.
A diplomatic row erupted last week between Indonesia and Malaysia after officials in Jakarta denied that haze in Malaysia came from forest fires on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo.
Forest fires is an annual hazard in Indonesia during the dry season and the resulting haze often drifted to neighboring countries, including Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
In 2015, the worst forest fires in two decades killed at least 24 people, according to the Indonesian government. The World Bank estimated economic losses as a result of the fires at U.S. $16 billion (226 trillion rupiah).
On Tuesday, Malaysian Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad told reporters authorities had noted an increase in the number of patients with conjunctivitis due to haze.
"The haze from the fire in Indonesia has yet to be resolved and has caused the number of patients seeking treatment for conjunctivitis to increase between 20 percent and 30 percent nationwide,” he said.
Ali Nufael and Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.