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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs