Thick haze blanketing the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan has shackled the local economy, forced school closures and led to widespread acute respiratory infections, the head of the Catholic bishops' justice and peace commission says. "Because of the haze crisis, [the local people's] activities in the economic sphere have been shackled. Their right to earn a living is seized," said Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, secretary of the bishops' Commission for Justice, Peace and Pastoral for Migrant-Itinerant People. The haze "has shackled all spheres of life," he said during a Sept. 21 press conference in Jakarta. The haze is caused by slash-and-burn farming techniques used by palm oil, pulp and paper plantations that populate the two islands. Vast tracts of land are cleared using this illegal method. The dry season brings wild fires, which fill the region with acrid smog. Father Siswantoko said the government has failed to take concrete steps to address the disaster and the people suffer as a result. "The disaster continues. We remain very concerned about this," he said. Compounding the issue, Father Siswantoko said, is that many residents in the haze-filled regions can't obtain or afford the medicine needed to treat their respiratory infections. He said the government must step in and provide free medicine. He also called on the government to heavily regulate plantation companies and enforce existing laws to prevent haze outbreaks. The public already knows who sets the fires, he said. "However, there is no sanction that would act as a deterrent. The government must be consistent in enforcing the existing law," he said. Divine Word Father Frans Sani Lake, coordinator of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Kalimantan, said the current haze crisis has led to at least 17 deaths in Central Kalimantan province. "Within the last three months, more than 3,700 people in the province have suffered from acute respiratory infections," he said. His organization has been focused on distributing masks, eye drops and even oxygen kits to local people. West Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, Jambi, Riau and South Sumatra are the provinces hardest hit by the air pollution originating from fires in peatland and plantations, he said. The environmental group Greenpeace said in a Sept. 18 statement that 40 percent of the fires originated from peatland.
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