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Forest Fires Sweep Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra

Officials in Indonesia say illegal burning to clear land has caused rampant wildfires across Borneo and Sumatra. Fires have destroyed millions of hectares of forest and farmland over the last month, and environmentalists and the government disagree over who is responsible for the destruction.

Officials of Indonesia's Forestry Ministry say eight million hectares have gone up in smoke over the last month, and fires are still burning out of control on the island of Borneo.

Government officials point to small farmers who use fires to clear land quickly and cheaply. But environmentalists blame Indonesia's failure to enforce logging controls and a ban on land-clearing fires.

The fires are a recurring problem in Indonesia. As in the past, a thick haze of smoke now threatens to disrupt air traffic in the affected area, and is causing health problems for people in nearby Malaysia and Singapore. Windborne smoke in Singapore is also worrying organizers of a meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank this week.

Israr works with the Indonesian government's office that monitors forest fires by satellite. He says more than 100 "hotspots" were burning Monday on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, with tens of thousands recorded over the last month. He says the government's forestry staff is still assessing the causes.

"We don't know yet until we know the exact information from the ground," he said. "We'll get some reports, and we have a call center here, so all the field staff will report to here, where's the fire and what is the action in the field."

Indonesian officials say the majority of the hotspots have appeared in small community farming areas. The country's forestry minister says 60 percent of the burned area is farmland, and the rest is forest.

Rully Syumanda, an activist with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, says big companies violate the countries laws more than the farmers.

According to a recent report by his organization, 80 percent of forest fires in Indonesia are caused by companies clearing land on big plantations, timber estates, and protected areas.

Syumanda says some of the government's efforts to prosecute firms are undermined by the country's criminal code, because police must provide evidence or eyewitnesses to show the fires were set on purpose. He says while penalties for illegal burning are severe, prosecutors are not able to make the charges stick.

He also says monitoring has not been thorough enough, and the police are not going after the right people. He says nomadic farmers who burn fields and big companies converting forest land for plantations or industrial uses are being treated the same.

On Monday, the country's police chief announced that 75 people currently face charges for illegally starting fires. The suspects' names have not been released.