Malaysian company among those investigated over haze - Indonesian minister

Reuters 16 Sep 15;

A Malaysian company is among more than 20 firms under investigation by Indonesian authorities in connection with forest fires that have caused a haze to engulf large parts of Southeast Asia, an Indonesian minister said on Wednesday.

The worsening smog across northern Indonesia, neighbouring Singapore and parts of Malaysia forced some schools to close and airlines to delay flights this week, while Indonesia ordered a crackdown on lighting fires to clear forested land.

"There is one (company) from Malaysia that is among those being investigated," Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya told reporters, without elaborating. "We are still checking if there are any from Singapore."

Police in Riau, at the heart of the haze, said an official overseeing operations at Indonesian palm oil company Langgam Inti Hibrido had been named a suspect for starting fires on the company's land. It was not possible to reach the company outside of business hours.

Southeast Asia has suffered for years from annual bouts of smog caused by slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, but governments in the region have failed to address the problem.

The fires have been exacerbated this year by the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon, as a prolonged dry season in Indonesia has parched the top soil, fuelling the flames.

This year's haze had already caused trillions of rupiah in losses to the Indonesian economy, with further losses now expected, added Nurbaya.

Authorities have so far declined to name any other suspected perpetrators but are set to announce this week the names of three or four companies that are due to face sanctions including possibly having their land permits revoked.

President Joko Widodo instructed security forces late on Monday to accelerate efforts to extinguish the fires and revoke land permits from companies found responsible.

Nearly 3,000 military and police personnel, 17 helicopters and four cloud-seeding aircraft have been deployed to fight the fires, according to the country's disaster management agency.

(Reporting by Jakarta bureau; Writing by Michael Taylor; Editing by Alison Williams)

Indonesia arrests seven company executives for illegal forest fires
Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, The Straits Times/Asia News Network Jakarta Post 17 Sep 15;
Jakarta pledges to step up enforcement and expand cloud-seeding efforts

Indonesian police nabbed seven corporate executives on Wednesday in connection with illegal forest fires across Sumatra and Kalimantan, as part of a wide-ranging effort to arrest the haze crisis.

Suspects from the latest bust included a senior executive from Bumi Mekar Hijau, a unit of Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which is also Indonesia's largest pulp and paper producer.

The national impetus, revealed on Wednesday, includes deploying more police to help with firefighting and handling probes against culprits, and increasing cloud-seeding sorties to douse the blazes, especially those burning on dry peatlands.

These carbon-rich peatlands produce the thick haze that has blanketed many parts of Indonesia, as well as neighbors Malaysia and Singapore in recent weeks, bringing the air quality down to unhealthy and sometimes hazardous levels.

The government's pledge to step up enforcement and expand cloud- seeding operations, as air pollutant levels improved owing to the rain yesterday, raises hope among millions affected by the haze.

Several parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan have been ravaged by forest fires in recent weeks because of the dry season, which was exacerbated by the El Nino effect.

A weather phenomenon, El Nino reduces rainfall in Southeast Asia, resulting in hot and dry weather, which causes forests to burn more easily. But Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said sporadic rain in recent days may offer respite while the presence of clouds facilitates cloud-seeding.

"We understand the El Nino will last until late November, but a weather anomaly has developed - we had rain north of the equator line," said Mr Willem Rampangilei.

The BNPB chief was speaking to The Straits Times on Wednesday after a meeting on the forest fire and haze crisis with President Joko Widodo.

"Cloud-seeding is not effective if there are no clouds at all, but we expect the clouds to increase in the coming days," he added.

National police chief Badrodin Haiti told reporters yesterday that he has deployed 682 officers, including 68 investigators, to affected areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan, to reinforce firefighters and soldiers already on the ground.

The Straits Times understands that the national police have identified firms such as Bumi Mekar Hijau for environmental crimes.

A senior executive from the South Sumatra-based firm, identified by his initials JLT, was arrested yesterday morning and is currently being interrogated.

An APP spokesman, responding to queries from The Straits Times, said last night it was "not aware of any new formal police charges against any of our suppliers at this time". She maintained that APP has operated a "zero burning" policy in its supply chain since 1996.

Senior members from six other companies accused of similar offences were also picked up yesterday for questioning, General Badrodin added. Bumi Mekar Hijau, which has pulpwood concessions in Ogan Komering Ilir in South Sumatra, is still facing trial for a separate civil case in the Palembang.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry had previously demanded that Bumi Mekar Hijau pay 7.8 trillion rupiah (US$540 million) to the state for damages from burning land. If found guilty again this time, the company's management could be jailed for up to 10 years.

This year, provincial police units in the six areas affected by the haze have been investigating 24 companies and 126 individuals for breaching environmental laws.

According to figures from Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, estimates show 52,000ha of land in Sumatra were ravaged by fire, while 138,000ha in Kalimantan were scorched. However, the number of hot spots recorded thus far this year remains fewer than that recorded last year, said the BNPB. (k)(++++)

Police target offending firms
Haeril Halim/Jon Afrizal, The Jakarta Post 16 Sep 15;

The National Police announced on Tuesday that it had named one company a suspect and launched separate probes into two other corporations deemed responsible for the rampaging land and forest fires in Sumatra, which have blanketed the island as well as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

The suspected company was identified as PT Bumi Mekar Hijau or BMH, while the two other companies under investigation were PT TPR and PT WAI, which, according to the police, were on the verge of being named suspects in the case

The National Police’s director for specific crimes Brig. Gen. Yazid Fanani said that the police were currently working to confirm evidence in the case before taking follow-up actions against the two comanies.

“The suspect, BMH, is a South Sumatra-based company, while the other two also operate in the same region,” Yazid said.

Bumi Mekar is a unit of Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper. The company is currently facing a Rp 7.8 trillion lawsuit filed by the government allegedly for causing fires in South Sumatra last year.

Yazid said that the police would allow other institutions tasked with dealing with the haze crisis to launch separate investigations to find out whether the companies could also be slapped with civil cases and administrative charges.

“We don’t want a partial handling of this crisis, but a holistic approach that involves other relevant institutions, as we sense that there is a tendency of recurrent offending in these cases,” Yazid added.

The police charged the companies with Article 99 of Law No. 32/2009 on environmental crimes. “If we later find that their offenses were intentional, they could face a maximum five years behind bars,” Yazid said.

As of today the police were investigating a total of 130 cases with regard to the devastating fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan as well as other areas where hot spots have been detected.

Meanwhile, the National Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Agus Rianto said that in addition to the three companies, the police had earlier named a total 126 individuals and 24 corporations suspects in several regions in Indonesia.

“We have dispatched a total of 70 investigators to a number of regions to help local police officers investigate cases related to the haze. We hope that such a move can speed up the investigation of potential violators,” Agus said.

Meanwhile, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan urged the governors whose provinces had suffered from the haze crisis to cooperate in mitigating the disaster that has intensified over the past few days.

According to Luhut, the haze is a serious disaster, that requires a coordinated and serious mitigation effort, as it affects not only Indonesia, but also neighboring countries.

“This is a serious matter and we don’t want to be blamed by neighboring countries for not taking action,” Luhut said on Tuesday during his presentation at a Jakarta meeting attended by Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar and the governors of various provinces.

During the meeting, governors from Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan reported on their mitigation efforts and the current haze condition in their provinces.

Among the Sumatran provinces affected by the haze, Jambi has zero fire hot spots, but that has not stopped it from being blanketed with smoke.

“According to our observations over two days, the number of hot spots has already dropped to zero, but we still have smoke,” Jambi Governor Hasan Basri Agus said, adding that wind was blowing in smoke coming from other regions.

Meanwhile, South Sumatra Governor Alex Noerdin said that the number of hot spots in his province had decreased from 750 to 51.

“It’s the result of our significant efforts to mitigate the haze,” Alex said, adding that he and his team had set a target of one week to eliminate all the hot spots.

Indonesia arrests seven over haze crisis
Indonesian police have detained seven people whose companies are allegedly connected with illegal agricultural fires.
Channel NewsAsia 17 Sep 15;

JAKARTA: Indonesian police have detained seven people whose companies are allegedly connected with illegal agricultural fires that have cloaked Southeast Asia in haze, in rare arrests over the annual smog outbreaks.

They were arrested on Wednesday on Indonesia's Sumatra island, where authorities have been battling smog-belching blazes which were started to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, national police chief Badrodin Haiti said.

Police said some of those arrested were executives, but did not give details about all the company employees detained. Officials did not reveal their identities or say which firms they worked for.

They could face up to 15 years in jail and heavy fines if found guilty of breaking Indonesian laws that ban starting forest fires.

Tens of thousands have fallen ill in parts of Indonesia as the haze thickened over the past fortnight, and the smog has led to unhealthy air quality and reduced visibility in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

"The president's instruction is clear -- law enforcement must be firm so that this will not happen again next year," Haiti told reporters late Wednesday, announcing the arrests.

President Joko Widodo pledged this week to crack down on companies and individuals behind the fires, and hundreds of extra police and investigators have been sent to haze-hit areas to hunt for those responsible.

They joined military personnel and water-bombing aircraft sent to tackle the fires.

In addition to the seven arrested, 133 people have been named suspects, Haiti said. This is a legal step in Indonesia that means investigators have enough evidence to consider filing charges against someone.

Indonesia has come under pressure from its neighbours to halt the smog outbreaks, an annual problem in Southeast Asia during the dry season.

The situation has been made worse this year by an El Nino weather system, which produces tinder-dry conditions in Indonesia and increases the risk of fires.

There were also fears that the haze could affect this weekend's glitzy Formula One night race in Singapore, but organisers have insisted the event will go ahead.

- AFP/jb