More Riau Haze Arrests as Singapore Drafts Legislation


More Riau Haze Arrests as Singapore Drafts Legislation

25 February 2014

published bywww.thejakartaglobe.com


Indonesia — Another 24 suspects were charged with setting brushfires in Riau on Tuesday in the latest police crackdown on illegal land clearing as the fires raging across the Sumatran province for more than three weeks showed signs of subsiding.

“All suspects are being investigated by the district police,” Riau Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Cmr. Guntur Aryo Tejo told the Indonesian news portal Tempo.co.

The arrests came on the heels of last week’s arrest of a dozen people allegedly involved in setting some of the region’s widespread fires. None of those arrested had any expressed affiliation with the large palm oil and pulp companies found in Indonesia’s once-forested Riau province. The act of setting fire to the forest land has been called a “traditional” method to clear-out land for palm oil plantations, one allegedly used by small-scale farmers for decades in this fertile region. Law enforcement’s seeming inability to address the issue has become a heated concern in Singapore and Malaysia.

One suspect, a 49-year-old woman, was allegedly caught setting fires herself, in spite of protests from her neighbors. A witness told police that he warned the woman to not set fire to scrub land in East Dumai district. Ignoring his pleas, the woman set the ground alight. The fire quickly spread to cover more than a hectare of land, according to Tempo reports.

“The fire has been doused by police officers with the help of residents,” Guntur told Tempo. “The perpetrator and the evidence have been taken to the local police office.”

This year, police in Riau have taken a tough stance on illegal land clearing. Last year’s fires raged for weeks and blanketed neighboring Malaysia and Singapore and hazardous levels of thick haze. The pollution ignited a diplomatic row between Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore — two nations seemingly exasperated with Indonesia’s inability to control burning in Riau and Kalimantan. Singapore was quick to pour fuel on the flames this year, with the city-state’s environment minister almost immediately accusing Indonesia of not caring about the welfare of its neighbors.

The city-state’s environment minister Vivian Balakhrisnan accused “those countries” bordering Singapore of ineffectual law enforcement as he proposed legislation that would allow Singaporean police to criminally charge companies caught setting land on fire.

“We need to go further,” Vivian said. “We have therefore decided to draft new legislation with extra-territorial applications. If approved by Parliament, errant companies — local or foreign — will face criminal charges in Singapore courts if their overseas actions cause haze pollution in Singapore.”

He said that Singapore was tired of dealing with the problem.

“The root cause is commercial,” he said. “It is not the weather or the environment. Errant companies have been clearing land by illegal burning because it is the cheapest way to do so.”

The proposed legislation — the “Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill” — is still under deliberation. If passed, parties responsible for haze-causing activities would have to pay up to $300,000 in fines, or or up to $450,000 if deliberate criminal activity could be proven in court. The bill would apply to Singaporean and non-Singaporean entities equally, although enforcing the law outside the city-state would present its own challenges.

“We hope this legislation will send a strong signal of deterrence to errant companies,” Balakhrisnan said.

Although this year’s haze has yet to impact Singaporeans — air quality has remained safe throughout the heaviest period of burning — residents in Riau were left to suffer the ill-effects of forest fires as nearly 6,000 hectares burned. Air quality in Riau dropped to dangerous levels, prompting school closures and an outbreak of respiratory illness.

The number of hotspots was recorded as 145 on Tuesday, down significantly from the 1,398 reported by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) on Monday. Most of the remaining fires burned in Bengkalis district. Flights at Pekanbaru’s Sutan Syarif Kasim II International Airport continued to be affected on Tuesday, with 16 scheduled flights suffering delays, airport manager Ibnu Hasan told the Indonesian news portal Liputan6.com.

Other flights were diverted to Batam, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Ibnu said.

More than 100 people were forced to evacuate their homes as the fires spread and air quality dropped in Bengkalis, the local police chief told the Indonesian news portal Detik.com.

“Our data shows that 125 people in total, including 24 children under five years old, 18 children and 83 adults [have left their homes],” Bengkalis Police Chief Adj. Sr. Cmr. Andry Wibowo told Detik.com. “We had to take them to shelters because their village was surrounded by fire, causing thick smog.”

The provincial government continued to advise against children going outside, closing local schools for some two weeks.
 


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