Jakarta, Indonesia — An Indonesian environmentalist group has accused more than 100 logging and plantation companies of being involved in forest fires that have sent choking smoke and haze across parts of the South-East Asia, local media reports said Wednesday.
The Indonesian Forum of Environment (Walhi) listed logging companies, industrial timber estates and palm-oil plantations, including Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, as being behind the annual widespread forest fires in the country.
“They should be held responsible because every year fires occur in their concessions,” The Jakarta Post quoted Chalid Muhammad, Walhi’s executive director, as saying.
Muhammad said the annual forest fires had destroyed up to 27 million hectares of forests in the country in the past five years.
Thick haze from the fires and cropland burnings have blanketed cities in Sumatra and West Kalimantan province on the Indonesian part of Borneo for the past several weeks, delaying airline flights and causing a health hazard to residents.
Walhi strongly denied claims by senior government officials that nomadic farmers were behind the haze, saying that only 19 percent of the fires occur on privately owned land and outside the firms’ concessions.
“The problem is how to get tough with the companies, not to arrest farmers,” Muhammad argued.
Meanwhile, the state-run Antara news agency quoted Environmental Minister Rachmad Witular as saying that his office has planned to issue a regulation to seize land cleared through burning of forests.
The annual haze generated in Indonesia is at its worst during the dry season, which runs from July to October.
The choking smoke have frequently affected neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand.
Indonesia banned the practice of open field burning in 1999 after widespread fires caused a thick haze to blanket parts of Indonesia and surrounding nations.
Breaking the law could result in up to 10 years in prison and a $1,06-million (about R6-million) fine.
However, enforcement of the law is often lax, activists and experts said, explaining that in addition to corrupt officials turning a blind eye, legal proceedings are also hampered because the country’s criminal code requires the police to provide solid proof, such as matches, gasoline and witnesses.
Hundreds of police officers were deployed last week to help extinguish raging fires in Riau in efforts that included dropping water bombs and creating manmade rain.