Greenpeace Indonesia activists hang a huge banner reading “President Joko Widodo, enforce the law to prevent forest fires” on Sept. 22 under a bridge in Palangkaraya, capital of Central Kalimantan province. (Photo courtesy of Jurnasyanto Sukarno/Greenpeace Indonesia)
More than 9,000 hectares of concession land belonging to palm oil firms suspected of causing forest fires choking vast areas of Indonesia and neighboring countries have been sealed off, a government official says.
Rasio Ridho Sani, head of the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s legal enforcement department, said on Sept. 21 that the move was in response to an increase in fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands despite letters sent four months earlier telling concession operators not to clear land by burning.
He said concessions operated by 51 companies and one individual are affected and are located in West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, Riau, Jambi, and South Sumatra provinces.
This “is an effort to enforce the law and send a strong signal to other companies that the law must be strictly applied to all parties [responsible for] forest fires.”
He said five companies, in particular, were thought to have set a number of fires and their licenses would be revoked if more are detected in their concessions.
Investigations conducted by both the ministry and police remain ongoing at other concessions.
Last week, the ministry announced that concessions operated by five Singaporean and Malaysian companies in West Kalimantan and Riau provinces were sealed off.
Rio Rompas of Greenpeace Indonesia said the government is not going far enough.
“There are many instruments which can be used by the government in this case. The ministry, for example, has the authority to issue an administrative sanction and revoke a license,” he told ucanews.com.
“So far the government has failed to do this, sealing off land sends out the wrong message and will not deter offenders,” he said.
The fires, many of which were illegally started to clear land for palm oil plantations, have triggered health fears among hundreds of thousands of people and caused diplomatic spats between Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.
A 4-year-old girl reportedly died on Sept. 15 in South Sumatra province due to respiratory problems linked to the smoke.
According to the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, there were about 45,200 fires detected this month, up from 27,212 in the same period last year.
“Every day my throat and eyes are sore,” Elsa Farida Manihuruk, who heads the Pekanbaru chapter of the Union of Catholic University Students of the Republic of Indonesia, told ucanews.com.
She said the smoke is unbearable yet protests by her group calling on local authorities to crack down on those responsible for the fires have been ignored.