Channel NewsAsia's Indonesia Bureau Chief Sujadi Siswo | Posted: 11 October 2006 2249 hrs
JAKARTA : Indonesia's Forestry Minister claims Jakarta is serious about putting a stop to the annual forest fires and haze.
The National Police has been ordered to investigate and prosecute the large plantations responsible, but the minister claims nature has hampered efforts to douse the fires.
Forest fires continue to rage in Indonesia's South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan.
Started deliberately to clear the land for farming, the fires have blanketed neighbouring South-East Asian countries in haze.
Singapore and Malaysia have urged Indonesia to deal with the problem in a more effective manner.
M S Kaban, Indonesian Forestry Minister, said, "We want to stress that the government is serious (about) preventing excessive haze from occurring. But here, nature also plays its part which makes it difficult for us to manage. The typhoon in the Philippines caused strong dry winds to sweep into Indonesia. In 24 hours, hotspots rose by 200 percent."
Indonesian authorities admit large plantations resort to indiscriminate slash-and-burn methods to clear or rejuvenate the land.
M S Kaban said, "Usually we can manage the haze better if there's no clearing of large plantations. But a huge plantation is opening in Kalimantan. Some of them have resorted to paying poor residents to burn their land. The Indonesian government has asked the National Police to investigate these companies and bring them to court."
But enforcement has not deterred the large plantations.
Since 2001, of the 11 cases brought against plantation firms for burning their land, only four made it to court.
This is because Indonesian law requires evidence to prove that someone actually starts the fire - which is almost impossible in the middle of a huge forest.
Instead environmental groups in Indonesia have been pushing authorities to hold firms responsible for their plantations.
Environmental group Walhi, which has some 40 groups under its wing, claims to have evidence that 23 companies in South Sumatra and Kalimantan have deliberately set fire to their land.
Rully Syumanda, Indonesia Environmental Group, said, "We want the National Police to take these 23 firms seriously. We will monitor the police investigation and will censure them if they drag their feet. We are tired. Every year Walhi monitors the fires but nothing has changed. We called for the law to be amended in 2003 but they refused to listen. As a result we face (the) problem of haze."
Groups like Walhi want plantation owners to be fined if their land catches fire, even if they are not caught in the act. - CNA/ms