Indonesia — The government has promised to open criminal investigations into a forestry company and a group of local farmers accused of using illegal slash-and-burn methods to clear land, causing widespread forest fires across Riau province.
Our team has found evidence that forest fires in Palelawan regency, Riau, were not caused by natural phenomenon, but were deliberately set by a company and group of local farmers clearing some land, Illyas Asaad, a deputy environment minister, told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
However, he declined to identify the company in question.
Illyas, the deputy minister for environment compliance at the State Ministry for the Environment, said stern measures were in the works to help fight Indonesias international image as a smoke exporter, following massive forest fires that burn out of control each year, sending smoke as far away as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
Because such practices occur every year, we have decided to take stern action as a deterrent for the public to stop setting fires in forests, Illyas said.
He added his office was still investigating forest fires in Pelintung, also in Riau.
Our team is still working to collect data and evidence on the fires in Pelintung, but it looks like the incident is also a man-made disaster, he said.
The ministry will enforce a 1999 environmental law that authorizes civilian officials to investigate environmental violations.
The laws Article 40 says civil investigation officials may examine people accused of crimes in relation to such violations.
Civilian investigators are also allowed to seek explanation and evidence from individuals or legal bodies in connection with criminal violations of the environmental laws.
The results of the investigations can then be submitted to the police, who can then choose to arrest or detain suspects based on the investigations.
Under the law, violators can face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a Rp 500 million fine.
Data recorded by Singapores National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite show there were at least 142 hotspots in Riau on Thursday.
A hotspot is defined as a fire covering at least a hectare.
WWF Indonesia has detected 1,025 hotspots across the country as of Jan. 26, 2009, including 833 in Riau alone.
It said the forest fires in Riau reached their peak on Jan. 21, with some 172 hotspots detected that day.
WWF forest monitoring officer Dedi Hariri blamed several companies and local residents for deliberately setting fires to forest areas to open up tracts of land.
The forest fires are a surprising accident because they come when most Indonesian areas are experiencing a rainy season, he said.
We suspect certain companies and groups of people have used the days without rain to clear land for plantations and farming.
He added the WWF had not detected any further hotspots in Riau over the last two days, amid scattered rainfall in some parts of the province.
Forest fires are an annual incident across the country during the dry season. In 2006, 145,000 hotspots were detected, making it the second worst season since 1997.
The government had to apologize in 2006 to Singapore and Malaysia for the record air pollution levels in those countries caused by the haze.