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Indonesian police arrest hundreds in connection to burning land

Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

  • Indonesia’s top cop on Thursday said the police had arrested 454 individuals over the fires now spreading in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
  • The environment minister called on police to “investigate thoroughly” for any links to companies and local government officials.
  • Local authorities in some haze-hit areas were assembling makeshift shelters as a precautionary measure to care for people with health problems.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency said on Friday it expected air quality to remain poor into the weekend as Indonesian disaster management officials cautioned that wildfires in Sumatra and Kalimantan could persist through September.

On Thursday Indonesia’s newly appointed police chief Tito Karnavian said police had prepared cases against 454 individuals in connection with burning land. “The arrests of individuals has increased compared with last year,” he said in Jakarta. “Just in Riau [province] 85 people have been arrested.”

The head of the police’s criminal investigation division, Ari Dono Sukmanto, said he expected the number of arrests to rise in the coming months. Indonesian environment minster Siti Nurbaya called on police to “investigate thoroughly” for any links to companies and local government officials.

While there has been a marked increase in the number of individuals arrested this year compared with 2015, concerns remain among local environmental NGOs over police capacity and commitment to enforce the law against allegedly errant companies.

Police in Riau announced last month they had closed cases against 15 companies due to a lack of evidence. Ari Dono Sukmanto said the police investigations against the firms had run for three months, ultimately to no avail. Last month police in Riau said there was insufficient evidence to prove firms were culpable for starting fires, while a lack of clarity of the zoning of concessions — a ubiquitous problem throughout Indonesia — also made the cases impossible to establish liability.

Environmental NGOs say that police are not using the full extent of the existing legal framework, emphasizing that the law gives police sufficient latitude to prosecute companies for negligence in failing to prevent a fire on a concession. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) is responding by preparing a pre-trial suit against the decision to terminate the investigations.

A peatland planted with oil palm burns in Indonesia’s Riau province in 2015. The island’s vast peat swamp zones have been widely drained so as to be planted with oil palm and pulpwood trees, but the dried peat is especially prone to catching fire, especially when planters use slash-and-burn to clear it cheaply. The practice is illegal in Indonesia for all except the smallest farmers, though companies routinely employ it, often with the tacit consent of corrupt officials. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

On Friday evening, the 24-hour pollutant standards index, a measure of air quality, was in the unhealthy range in four of the five areas measured by Singapore’s environment agency. In parts of Sumatra, local authorities were assembling makeshift shelters as a precautionary measure to care for people with health problems. More than half a million Indonesians were diagnosed with respiratory illnesses during the 2015 Southeast Asian haze crisis.

A spokesperson for the social agency in Rokan Hilir regency, in Jambi province, said 63 residents from 13 families had already moved to the shelter. “This is because they can’t stand the haze from the disaster of wildfires in the area,” said Misnawati.

Fires in West Kalimantan continued to burn on Friday as Indonesian television broadcast footage of local residents joining firefighters attempting to extinguish a blaze just 30 meters form a housing complex in Pontianak. Low visibility around the provincial capital’s airport disrupted several flights this week.

Both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments have offered air assets to assist Indonesian firefighting efforts as the dry season peaks in September. Disaster management officials and local volunteers continued to work on Friday to extinguish the increasing number of fires. Six Indonesian provinces — Central Kalimantan, Jambi, Riau, South Kalimantan, South Sumatra and West Kalimantan — have declared emergency statuses in order to draw on greater disaster-management resources.