News / Asia

Indonesia Builds Criminal Cases Against 8 Firms Over Fires

A family rides on a motorcycle as the haze from fires hits Kubu district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 25, 2013.A family rides on a motorcycle as the haze from fires hits Kubu district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 25, 2013.
x
A family rides on a motorcycle as the haze from fires hits Kubu district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 25, 2013.
A family rides on a motorcycle as the haze from fires hits Kubu district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 25, 2013.
Reuters
Indonesian investigators are building criminal cases against eight Southeast Asian companies they suspect of being responsible for raging fires that have blanketed neighboring Singapore and Malaysia with hazardous smog.

The Environment Ministry last week named the firms for their alleged role in Southeast Asia's worst air pollution crisis in 16 years, which has raised concerns over public health and hurt business and tourism in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Owners of five of the plantations have denied any wrongdoing. Reuters has not been able to contact the others.

A 2009 law carries tough penalties for environmental crimes, although such regulations have rarely been enforced due to Indonesia's endemic corruption and sprawling geography.

And investigators could find it hard to pin the blame on specific firms because of the complex ownership of palm oil concessions and pulp and paper holdings on Indonesia's Sumatra island where most of the fires are burning.

But outrage from Singapore as well as environmental groups is putting pressure on Jakarta. Fires are used to clear land on plantations and can burn for weeks because of peat deposits below the surface.

”This is the first major haze since the new law. This is the first big opportunity for the government to use it,'' said Peter Kanowski, deputy director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a conservation organization based in Indonesia.

Three of the firms under investigation are owned by government-linked companies in Malaysia. Unlike Singapore, Malaysia has not publicly admonished Indonesia over the smog.

An initial on-the-ground investigation by dozens of officials in Sumatra's Riau province found evidence of fires on land licensed to PT Tunggal Mitra Plantations and PT Bhumireksa Nusa Sejati, said Sudariyono, the Environment Ministry's enforcement chief.

The two firms are owned by the world's largest palm oil planter by landbank, Malaysia's Sime Darby Bhd, via its Indonesian subsidiary Minamas Plantation.

In a statement, Sime Darby said the latest satellite maps from the U.S. government agency NASA, overlaid with the company's own map of its concessions, showed no fires at Tunggal Mitra Plantations.

There were three fires in Bhumireksa Nusa Sejati's concession area. However, they were outside the company's operating area, said Sime Darby, which is backed by state funds in Malaysia.

Sime Darby cited Indonesian regulations, imposed in the 1980s, under which local farmers can use concession land without restrictions. The firm said it has not cleared land since April.

Some farmers illegally clear land using ‘slash and burn’ techniques during the June to September dry season.

Fourteen people had been arrested this week for lighting fires, national police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar said. He declined to say if any were employed by the named companies, but added there was evidence of fires at concessions owned by all eight firms.

Sudariyono said investigators had visited concessions of all the firms and were using GPS data to establish the location of fires. They were focusing initially on “going after the local companies” and would pursue any links to parent firms later.

He declined to give more details, but said more companies would be investigated.
 
Tough penalties

The Environment Ministry and the police are leading the investigation and say they will decide if there is enough evidence to recommend the attorney general's office pursue the case further.

A team of 58 police officers and nine officials from the Environment Ministry were on the ground in Riau, the epicenter of the fires, police said.

Action has rarely been taken against plantation companies since the first major Indonesian haze crisis in 1997, when smog disrupted shipping and air travel across Southeast Asia.

Under the 2009 law, a person or company found guilty of starting a forest fire can face up to 10 years in jail and 10 billion rupiah ($1 million) in fines.

A guilty company can also have their profits seized, operations shut down and be sued for damages.

Palm oil is a key ingredient for products such as cooking oil and biofuel. Global demand has nearly doubled in seven years to more than 51 million tons, with much of it produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Industry data show oil palms cover about five million hectares in Malaysia and more than eight million hectares in Indonesia.

Among the other firms Sudariyono listed was PT Multi Gambut Industri, known officially in Malaysia as PT TH Indo Plantations.

It is a unit of the Malaysian state-linked Pilgrimage Fund Board. Kuala Lumpur-listed TH Plantations Berhad, also a unit of the fund, manages TH Indo Plantations.

TH Plantations said it had ‘zero-burning’ policies, adding it had observed instances of open burning outside the boundaries of the estates it managed.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid