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Calls for crackdown intensify as fire crisis heats up across Indonesia

Mongabay - October 11, 2023

A senior member of Indonesia's parliament on Oct. 10 called for tougher police action against companies responsible for land fires, as air pollution continued to shutter schools and sicken thousands across Sumatra and Borneo.

"I am asking the police and all related officials to be decisive, and look not only for those who start fires, but also the companies behind them,' Ahmad Sahroni, the deputy chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing legal affairs, told fellow lawmakers. "They must go all-out so that land fires do not become our agenda every year.

"This duty is not just about land and forests, but also about the safety of millions of Indonesians," Sahroni added. "If this continues, it is a certainty that people will be hit with respiratory disease."

The environment ministry said it had shuttered 35 concessions, including several oil palm plantations, owing to fires, and issued 220 warning letters to companies in the year to Oct. 5.

Last week, Rasio Ridho Sani, the head of the environment ministry's enforcement arm, known as Gakkum, traveled to Ogan Komering Ilir district in Sumatra's Riau province to seal off a 586-hectare (1,448-acre) concession operated by PT Sampoerna Agro, part of Indonesia's Sampoerna conglomerate.

"This should be a concern for other companies," Rasio said on Oct. 4 outside the still-smoldering plantation concession. "At this location the fire is still burning, it's still giving off smoke. This land fire is having a serious impact on health and the environment."

On Oct. 10, Indonesia's meteorology agency, the BMKG, recorded 142 high-confidence hotspots, indicating a high likelihood of fire, in addition to 2,901 hotspots assessed as medium confidence across the archipelago.

Ministry officials said the number of concessions sealed by the government would soon rise as fieldworkers performed more ground checks at hotspots detected by satellite imagery.

"The number of locations to be sealed will increase because the [ministry] team is analyzing hotspot data and satellite imagery," said Ardy Nugroho, sanctions lead at the environment ministry. "If we see a location burning, we will send a team to the location."

The fire attended by the ministry's enforcement chief in Pedamaran subdistrict in South Sumatra province was barely 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Palembang, the provincial capital, where schools remained closed at the start of the week, with respiratory tract infections and more serious cases of pneumonia continuing to rise.

Health workers in the city diagnosed 14,960 cases of acute respiratory tract infection in September. In early October, the head of the city's health department, Fenty Aprina, said the case burden had reached between 600 and 700 diagnoses per day.

Palembang Acting Mayor Ratu Dewa announced on Oct. 10 that the city government would allocate 6 billion rupiah ($380,000) to help treat patients.

A diplomatic blame game continued on Oct. 9 as Indonesia's senior minister for legal affairs, Mahfud M.D., endorsed comments by Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister, stating that the country was not the source of deteriorating air quality in neighboring Malaysia.

"There was no smoke sent to neighboring countries, as has been stated by several parties – it happened often in the past, but not any longer," Mahfud told a press conference on Oct. 9.

Elsewhere, fires continued to cause destruction in Indonesia's eastern regions.

Data from the BMKG showed that more than 30% of the 493 high-confidence hotspots over the previous 10 days to Oct. 10 were recorded in the eastern Papua region, which is home to Indonesia's largest stretch of intact old-growth forest.

In Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo Island, low visibility forced the cancellation of flights out of smaller airports that lack instrument landing systems technology.

Last week, Indonesia's deputy environment minister, Alue Dohong, checked into hospital after he fell ill while joining firefighters extinguishing a blaze in Banjar district, South Kalimantan province.

Earlier in the same district, singer Alint Markani dressed in black wandered into a smoldering landscape the color of charcoal to pose for photos to raise awareness of the situation in Kalimantan.

"Kalimantan is one of the world's lungs after the Amazon rainforest," Alint wrote." But it needs to be taken to the lung clinic for an X-ray."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/10/calls-for-crackdown-intensify-as-fire-crisis-heats-up-across-indonesia