Fires darken skies once more

Down to Earth No. 45, May 2000

The onset of the dry season saw the prospect of another regional 'haze' crisis as fires set by plantation companies clearing land spread out of control in the dry weather. A pall of smoke began to spread over parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan early in March and pollution levels reached hazardous levels. Indonesia's neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei sent letters urging the Indonesian government to take action. Satellite images showed an increasing number of 'hot spots' (fire locations) - over 1,000 on Sumatra alone during one week.

This year the government was quicker to react to the fires than in previous years. Environment minister Sonny Keraf called the fires a "national disaster" and pledged to direct state funds to put out the fires. He later admitted that there was little the ill-equipped and financially-strapped authorities could do except wait for rain. So far this year, Indonesia has been lucky: the rains have lasted longer due to the lingering effects of La Niña climatic effect.

The Wahid government has said it will clamp down hard on companies responsible for the fires. (At least there is now no disagreement as to who the main culprits are). In March an interdepartmental enforcement team involving the police, the Attorney General's office and the forestry and environment departments was set up to investigate and bring offenders to justice. Sonny Keraf has said at least ten companies are believed to be responsible for starting the most recent fires. The government investigating team has named 3 Malaysian-owned companies and one Singaporean active in Riau province and said they would be prosecuted. They are PT Inti Indo Sawit Subur, PT Adei Plantation & Industri, PT Musim Mas and PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa.

It remains to be seen whether the promised action will have any concrete result. Also whether the commitment to pursuing offenders will weaken now that the rains have, at least temporarily, put out most of the worst fires. Previous governments in Jakarta have promised to take stern action against companies responsible for violating the zero-burn rules, but until now only one company has been successfully prosecuted. Even then, only three low-ranking staff spent a few days in jail.

(Channel new Asia 27/mar/00; Suara Pembaruan 1/Apr/00; Kompas 28/Mar/00, 12/Apr/00; Tempo 6/Apr/00; DTE press release 21/Mar/00 - full text.)