By: Our Correspondent

Despite what appears to be one of the worst burning seasons in recent years, Indonesia has begun to move against rogue palm oil operators, levying an unprecedented fine the equivalent of US$26 million against one company, ordering two operators to jail and sending hundreds of military personnel to some of the hardest-hit areas to combat the blazes.

In all, four companies in the south Sumatran region have been charged with breaking environmental rules. Nonetheless, Singapore and Malaysia have both issued complaints to Jakarta as drifting smoke chokes both nearby countries. Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency said potential losses from the fires and haze during last year’s burn season were estimated at the equivalent of US$1.6 billion. Given the spreading problem, it is likely to run that high this year as well.

The government in Jakarta declared a state of emergency in Riau Province, the closest to Singapore amid fears that worsening air quality could hamper the upcoming Formula 1 Grand Prix slated for the coming weekend. At top speeds of up to 300 km per hour, clear vision is essential. Indonesia has also deployed aircraft were deployed to water-bomb the Riau fires. Both Malaysia and Singapore were considering cloud-seeding to chemically induce rain.

In the Jambi region of Sumatra, the local Environmental Agency has announced that the air pollution standard index (ISPU) has reached a “very dangerous” level. It is the highest recorded in the past several years, sending dozens of residents to local hospitals. Two persons – a two-year-old boy and a 15-year-old youth – died in mid-September from the air pollution.

The Singapore National Environment Agency said it had urged Indonesia to “look into urgent measures to mitigate the transboundary haze occurrence” and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia issued a statement of concern about the problem.

Nonetheless, the country has not been standing still. The government announced last weekend that 1,000 troops were being sent to the worst-affected areas to combat the fires. So far at least 107 individuals have been charged for lighting the fires that have blanketed the region, clearing at least 68 areas for slash-and-burn agriculture. Central Kalimantan has the highest number of fires, followed by South Sumatra, Riau and West Kalimantan.

However, the problem is far bigger than that. Greenpeace Indonesia reported forest fires in Riau  worsened from 6,644 hotspots, in 2011 to 15,112 hotspots in 2013. It didn’t supply later figures.

The government is also prosecuting four more of the biggest palm oil firms in a case “that is unprecedented both for the scale of the official response and the severity of the punishments that have been handed down,” according to the international environmental NGO Mongabay.

Also earlier this month, Mongabay reported, the Supreme Court in Indonesia rejected an appeal from the plantation developer PT Kallista Alam and ordered the company to pay the equivalent of US$26 million in fines and reparations, putting an end to a three-year legal process, one of the biggest fines ever levied on a local company, ending a three-year legal process that began when the Environment Minister brought charges against Kallista.

More than 75 percent of the Tripa region of south Sumatra, where Kallista was operating, is now covered by palm oil concessions. The number of Sumatran orangutans has fallen from more than 1,000 in the early 1990s, the population now has fallen to fewer than 200 in the remaining 17,000 hectares of forest.

berthelsen fires 091515

Photo credit: Mongabay