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Indonesian parliament to investigate fire-linked firms in Riau

Fire set for peatland clearing in Riau Province, Indonesia in July 2015. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Fire set for peatland clearing in Riau Province, Indonesia in July 2015. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The Indonesian parliament will form a task force to look into the cancelling of investigations against 15 companies alleged to be complicit in fires in Riau, the country’s top palm oil producing province.

Legislators made the announcement on Friday as burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan continued to spread, prompting emergency responses from authorities there. The fires are an annual scourge caused by illegal slash-and-burn land clearing practices by companies and farmers, usually to make way for oil palm and timber plantations.

The fires this week were most concentrated in West Kalimantan province, on Indonesia’s part of Borneo island, with 158 hotspots there on Friday, according to Indonesia’s disaster management agency chief Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. That was up from a 106 a day earlier. Following a request from the governor, the agency will begin cloud seeding operations next week and send in two water-bombing helicopters in the meantime.

In the province’s Sanggau district, satellites detected 21 fire alerts on land managed by Asia Pulp & Paper, the country’s largest timber company, according to Global Forest Watch. And in Riau, a number of fire alerts appeared in a concession belonging to Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), Indonesia’s second-biggest timber firm.

The fires in Borneo were characterized by “dense smoke plumes, persisting dry weather and prevailing winds blowing towards ASEAN countries,” the secretariat of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said in a statement.

Malaysian environment minister Wan Junaidi told reporters that he planned inform his Indonesian counterpart, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, that “the effects of the haze have already been seen in Peninsular Malaysia as well as some areas in Sarawak. It will be to alert [the Indonesians], we don’t want to pick fights with anyone.”

A satellite image taken in September 2015 at the height of that year’s haze crisis shows the international extent of the disaster. Red outlines indicate hotspots where the sensor detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fires. Thick gray smoke hovers over both islands and has triggered air quality alerts and health warnings in Indonesia and neighboring countries. Visibility has plummeted. NASA image by Adam Voiland (NASA Earth Observatory) and Jeff Schmaltz (LANCE MODIS Rapid Response). Caption by Adam Voiland.

The parliamentary task force for Riau will be formed next month following an outcry over the Riau Police’s closing of cases against 15 companies the Environment and Forestry Ministry had linked to last year’s fires.

“We hope the establishment of this task force can help solve the problem of forest and peatland fires in Riau,” said Suhardiman Amby, a member of the Riau parliament who met with national lawmakers this week.