Poor law enforcement, corruption and scant government funding contributed to recurrent agricultural fires that have ravaged large swathes of forest in Indonesia and engulfed parts of the country and its neighbors with noxious smoke and ash, experts said Friday.
Using fires to clear land is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years under Indonesia’s 1999 law on the environment, but local leaders often turned a blind eye to the practice, said Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“Economic incentives to use fires are huge. To clear land without burning it can cost about 5.5 million rupiah ($391) per hectare, but with fires you only need 300,000 rupiah (U.S. $21) and that’s a gap that is hard to resist,” Herry told BenarNews.
Haze from fires currently burning out of control in Indonesia has been the worst since 2015, authorities said. The smog has forced the closure of many schools across the region. Health officials in affected countries have warned about the air pollution being toxic, and people have complained about difficulties breathing.
By the end of this week, the haze had reached Thailand and the Philippines after blanketing parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Reports emerged that hundreds of endangered orangutans on Borneo Island were also suffering from breathing in the dirty air.
According to Herry, local leaders who fear losing votes for cracking down on the practice was a factor in weak law enforcement, especially during election seasons.
“Law enforcement rarely exists on the ground,” Herry said. “The central government often blames local governments, but local officials have to face their own people and can’t just stop the practice without providing alternatives that don’t cost much.”
Small farmers, corporations, as well as members of the local business, political, military and police elite are all responsible for the fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo islands, he said.
This week, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry blamed the country’s timber and plantation industries for the recurring forest fires, saying in a statement that only about 22 percent, or 2,179 companies with forestry permits, had submitted mandatory reports on fire control.
“Law enforcement is not strong enough against mid-level offenders, who are organized but without legal entities,” Herry said.
The government had not spent enough money on early fire detection efforts involving local communities, he said.
“In some cases, only 1 million rupiah (U.S. $71) is allocated per month for 10 people. How can they conduct patrols and buy gasoline for their motorcycles?” Herry said.
The environment and forestry ministry only has a budget of 7 trillion rupiah (U.S. $497,000) while it oversees 125 million hectares (309 million acres) of forest, he noted.
Police: Hundreds named as suspects
In Jakarta, national police spokesman Muhammad Iqbal said 244 people and six plantation and timber companies had been named suspects in connection with the fires.
“The number of companies to be named suspects will certainly increase. We are working hard to gather evidence and to enforce the law to prevent a repeat of the fires,” he said.
Air quality has markedly improved in Riau province on Sumatra, Iqbal told reporters. But toxic haze has forced neighboring Malaysia to close more than 2,000 schools, as air quality deteriorated to “very unhealthy” levels on an official index in many parts of the country.
Daniel Murdyarso, a forestry professor at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, said a lack of deterrence could be one of the culprits.
“What is needed is to create a deterrent effect by imposing multiples charges – environmental, criminal and corruption – on offenders. This should be applied to all, including those who buy land that has been cleared by burning,” Daniel told BenarNews.
He said despite a ban on land-clearing by fire, setting fire to weeds and discarded biomass by local farmers was still not considered a legal violation.
He urged the government to involve local communities more in preventing forest fires.
“The government can’t go it alone. Its authority must be used to mobilize communities and enforce the law to create public order,” he said.
Some relief from rain
In Central Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo, rain induced by cloud seeding brought a respite on Friday for some communities, said Agus Wibowo, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB).
A CASA C-212 aircraft dropped 800 kilos (1,700 pounds) of salt to create artificial rain over Pulang Pisau regency in Central Kalimantan, resulting in a 30-minute downpour, Agus said.
“Weather modification operations will continue and intensify to extinguish forest fires so that we will see clear skies again,” he said in a statement.
However, air quality remained at hazardous levels in parts of the province, with almost 500 fire hotspots detected, according data released by BNPB on Friday.
In total, 2,873 hotspots were detected across six provinces on Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian name for Borneo, with air quality indexes showing readings ranging from hazardous to moderate, BNPB said.
The agency said more than 884,000 patients with respiratory problems had been recorded in the six provinces since February, when the current bout of forest fires began.
There are no official estimates available on the extent of losses from the haze, but BNPB said almost 330,000 hectares (815,000 acres) of forest have been ravaged since the onset of the fires this year.
BNPB chief Doni Monardo inspected burned out areas in Kalimantan in a helicopter and concluded that the fires were deliberately lit, Agus said.
“There was a regular pattern and only areas outside plantations were burned,” Agus told BenarNews.
More than 29,000 workers and 44 helicopters had been deployed to extinguish the fires, a sharp increase from more than 9,000 a week ago, the disaster management agency said Friday.
‘They create trouble every year’
Haze blown by monsoon winds has also begun affecting some areas of the Philippines, officials in Manila said Friday.
Light to moderate haze was covering the southern city of Zamboanga, the central cities of Cebu and Dumaguete and the western province of Palawan, Landrico Dalida Jr., the deputy administrator of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, told the Associated Press.
“It’s visible, meaning there are particles that are really coming from those areas in Indonesia and they reach us,” Dalida said.
Air quality in some parts of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, hit unhealthy and hazardous levels on Friday, authorities said.
On Wednesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said his government was considering a law to penalize local companies that refuse to shoulder responsibility for fires burning in estates they own in Indonesia.
“We also want to take action against Malaysian companies which have estates outside Malaysia, which are contributing towards the haze because of burning in their estates,” Mahathir told reporters.
Indonesian authorities have named local subsidiaries of four Malaysian palm oil conglomerates –Sime Darby Plantation, IOI Corporation, TDM Berhad and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad –among those accused of causing the forest fires.
In Singapore, air quality improved on Friday, with the 24-hour Pollutant Standard Index reading at 59 to 64, within the moderate range, the Straits Times reported.
Smog from Sumatra has severely affected five southern-most provinces in Thailand and is expected to stay for another three days, Thananchai Wannasut, the environmental director in Songkhla province, said Friday.
“On Sept. 18, we measured fine particles at 100 micrograms per cubic meters of air and 230 micrograms at its peak, the worst in 3-year period,” Thananchai told BenarNews.
The country’s air safety level is 50 micrograms per cubic meters of air.
Meanwhile, Thai Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul said he had ordered local health authorities to prepare masks for residents. He warned people to seek immediate treatment in cases of breathing difficulty, coughing or dizziness.
At the Indonesian consular office in Songkhla, a small group of residents gathered to urge Indonesia to solve the haze problem.
“We demand that the Indonesian government solve the issue as soon as possible, prevent occurrences of the issue as they create trouble every year,” Sarawuth Srisong, a participant in the small protest rally, told BenarNews.
Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok and Aminah Farid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.