Jakarta, Indonesia — Seventy-five people in Indonesia could face charges for starting forest fires, the national police chief said on Monday, part of efforts to contain a hazard that regularly blankets parts of Southeast Asia with choking smoke.
Indonesia’s neighbours have complained over the recurring thick haze caused by forest fires in the dry season, which deters tourists and causes health problems.
Police chief General Sutanto said 75 people had been officially named suspects, meaning they could face charges, for some of the 5,000 separate fires identified on Sumatra and Borneo.
“On forest fires, we have taken preventive measures and legal action,” he told legislators during a parliamentary hearing.
Sutanto said police were currently investigating more than 100 cases. Two plantation companies had been implicated and 37 employees were being investigated, he said.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said late last month he wanted the fires out by Sept. 2.
Yudhoyono is currently visiting Singapore, which frequently suffers from the haze caused by Indonesian forest fires.
The government’s latest effort to douse the fires has included cloud seeding to induce rain.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said small farmers were continuing to clear land using fires because they were not aware of the danger.
“I guess we haven’t done enough to promote public awareness about the harm of forest fires,” Witoelar told the Jakarta Post in an interview published on Monday.
Witoelar told Reuters recently that the fires would disappear in two years. His target is more optimistic than some other officials, who see the seasonal blazes going on for years.
While slash-and-burn land clearing is illegal in Indonesia, prosecutions take time and few have stuck.
Sumatran authorities said more than 50 people were suspected of illegal forest burning in recent years and two had been jailed.