Haze crisis turns deadly
Jon Afrizal and Syofiardi Bachyul
The Jakarta Post
Amid calls for strict law enforcement against recalcitrant companies behind land and forest fires, the thickening smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan has started to claim lives as air quality in some areas has fallen to its lowest level in years.
Jambi Environmental Agency (BLHD) announced on Sunday that the air pollution standard index (ISPU) in the provincial capital of Jambi stood at the 'very dangerous' level of 409, up from 360 on Saturday, which was already within the 'dangerous' level.
Agency head Rosmeli said the pollution level was the highest recorded in the past several years and was a result largely of the spread of bigger dust particles from the forest fires.
'In such a situation, the air is very dangerous to inhale not only for children but also for adults,' said Rosmeli, adding that the air pollution could lead to dried lips, eye pain, chest tightness and inflammation of the respiratory tract.
Dozens of residents arrived at local hospitals for treatment as smog claimed the lives of Dimas Aditya Putra, 2, and Wahyuni, 15, a student of junior high school SMP 5 in Jambi. Both died last week after experiencing acute respiratory problems.
'She [Wahyuni] died after suffering coughing for three days. She had difficulties breathing because of the smog,' Wahyuni's father Trimo said.
Jambi, along with Riau, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, are the provinces hardest hit by the air pollution originating from fires in peat land and plantations in their areas.
The fires have also caused air pollution levels in Singapore and Malaysia to deteriorate to alarming levels.
Head of Jambi Provincial Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD), Arif Munandar, said the agency had been deploying a Super Puma helicopter since Friday to extinguish the fires through water bombing.
Haze has also impacted flights at major airports in Sumatra as poor visibility enveloped Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, North Sumatra, the biggest airport in Sumatra.
Poor visibility has also affected airports in Pekanbaru in Riau, Palembang in South Sumatra, Jambi, Simeulue in Aceh and Nias in North Sumatra. 'All of the airports are covered in a thick haze,' the spokesman for state airport operator PT Angkasa Pura II's Kualanamu office, Wisnu Budi Setianto, said.
Data from Global Forest Watch (GFW), an international forest monitoring network initiated by Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), has revealed that between Sept. 5 and 12, around 63 percent of the fires were in peat lands, while the remaining 20 percent were in industrial timber plantations, 13 percent in oil palm plantations and 4 percent in logging areas.
'There should be an update on land concession use from the government because many of the fires have originated in peat land. There are indications that such areas have been exposed to commercial use,' said WRI Indonesia analyst Andika Putraditama.
The GFW's data also revealed a number of hotspots in the plantations of several firms, five of which are major suppliers of Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).
They are PT Rimba Hutani Mas, PT Bumi Andalas Permai, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Wood Industries and PT Wirakarya Sakti.
Bumi Mekar Hijau is currently facing a Rp 7.8 trillion (US$557 million) civil lawsuit filed by the government at the Palembang District Court in South Sumatra for allegedly causing fires in 20,000 hectares in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra.
APP managing director for sustainability Aida Greenbury denied that the company's suppliers were using slash-and-burn methods to clear their concessions.
'We guarantee that our suppliers are not burning the land as we have applied strict prohibitions on such practices,' said Aida.
Aida believed that the fires in the concessions originated from land outside the companies' plantations, which was owned by other firms, or on land that was still unclaimed.
'We have deployed personnel to guard the border of our concessions to prevent the fires from spreading into our areas. The government should also deal sternly with other firms to enforce the zero-burning policy.'
Environmentalist Mas Achmad Santosa said the deterrent effect on recalcitrant companies behind the forest fires remained largely weak.
He alleged that current law enforcement in the problem was badly compromised.
Mas Achmad explained that the success story in the prosecution of palm oil company PT Kallista Alam was a result of strong coordination and leadership by several related law-enforcement institutions.
The Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal by Kallista and ordered the company to pay fines totalling Rp 366 billion for illegally burning large swathes of the Tripa forest in Aceh, a ruling that many hope could set a precedent for future law enforcement against agro-forestry companies.
'Like in a symphony orchestra, there should be a conductor who can lead and supervise all elements of law enforcement in order to avoid investigations into the cases being compromised,' he said. (rbk)
Agus Maryono in Cilacap and Apriadi Gunawan in Medan contributed to this article.
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