Indonesia firms face fire sanctions 

Riau province deforestation. Source: Wikimedia

Five pulpwood producers in Indonesia’s Riau province face administrative sanctions over the illegal fires which contributed to last year’s smog, according to Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

They were among 15 employers whose cases were dropped by the Sumatran province’s police earlier in 2016 due to insufficient proof, prompting an official probe to establish a task force to examine the decision.

Siti said her ministry had revoked the licences of three firms: Dexter Timber Perkasa, Siak Raya Timber and Hutani Sola Lestari.

It had also temporarily suspended Sumatera Riang Lestari and ordered another business Rimba Lazuardi to comply with conditions such as fitting equipment to monitor potential fires and to extinguish any blazes that occurred.

The Riau representatives and environmental groups were summoned to give evidence to the probe.

The committee will recommend that police reopen investigations if evidence of violations by any company is found.

The Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean governments have all dismissed research claiming the 2015 haze caused 100,000 deaths.

The fires in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo were the worst since 1997, burning about 261,000 hectares of forests and peat-land as firms cleared land for palm oil and pulpwood production, raising questions about the sustainability of the islands’ development.

In Environmental Research Letters, Harvard and Columbia researchers estimated the amount of health-threatening fine particles, often called PM2.5, released by the fires that burned from July to October and tracked the spread of smoke using satellite observations.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency said the study “could be baseless or they have the wrong information”. Indonesia said the haze caused 24 deaths, including those killed fighting the fires.

The Singaporean Ministry of Health contentiously said short-term exposure to smoke would generally not cause serious health problems. The study was “not reflective of the actual situation”, it said.

Malaysian health minister Subramaniam Sathasivam said the government was still studying the research, which was “computer-generated, not based on hard data”. “People have died but to what extent the haze contributed to it, it’s hard to say,” the minister said. “If an 80-year-old fellow with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problem and exposure to haze died, what did he die of? This is a hell of a difficult question to answer.”

Last year’s burning season, which was worsened by El Niño reducing rainfall, also tainted Indonesia’s reputation globally by releasing a vast amount of carbon.

Jamal Hisham Hashim of the International Institute for Global Health in Kuala Lumpur said the study should not be dismissed.

Air pollution research after London’s killer smog in 1952 had established the relationship between fine particulate matter and premature deaths, particularly in people with respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, he said.

“The pollution level that occurred during the haze is severe enough to cause premature deaths. That is indisputable,” Hashim said. “The study is a wake-up call. We need to be shaken; we have become too complacent with the haze.