Preliminary investigations have singled out eight plantation companies owned by Malaysian investors as the source of forest fires in Riau that have caused Southeast Asia's worst ever air pollution crisis.
The fires have started a diplomatic war of words between Indonesia, as the source of the problem, and Singapore and Malaysia, as the countries receiving the brunt of the smog.
Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya suggested on Saturday that the eight palm-oil companies were using illegal slash-and-burn methods as the cheapest way to clear land for cultivation.
'The ministry is still gathering more evidence and verification in the field. The fires are, for sure, on their concessions,' said Balthasar, in Riau's capital Pekanbaru.
'I will immediately meet my Malaysian counterpart to inform him of the findings and seek ways to resolve the current issue and stop recurrence in the future,' he said. The allegations will be followed up by Riau Police.
The companies in question are PT Langgam Inti Hibrida, PT Bumi Reksa Nusa Sejati, PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation, PT Udaya Loh Denawi, PT Adei Plantation, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, PT Multi Gambut Industri, and PT Mustika Agro Lestari.
Tunggal Mitra is a unit of Minamas Plantation, subsidiary of Malaysia-based Sime Darby Plantations, while Adei Plantation is owned by Kepong Berhard. The Jakarta Post's emails for clarification to these companies have gone unanswered.
The Environment Ministry's deputy for environmental degradation and climate change, Arief Yuwono, said that under the environment law, the penalties for causing illegal forest fires are a maximum of 10 years in prison and fines of up to 5 billion rupiah (US$504,000).
Six other companies are also involved, but Balthasar refused to name them.
Plantation companies have often ordered local people to burn forest or peatland near their concessions, hoping that the fire will spread onto their land.
'Once the fire takes hold of their concessions, the companies shift the blame onto the local residents as if the fire had accidentally and spread to their land,' the Minister said.
In the past week, smog from the fires has brought misery to Singapore and western part of Malaysia. Air quality in Singapore improved drastically to 'moderate' on Saturday from life-threatening levels on Friday afternoon, after the Indonesian government declared a state of emergency in Riau, the source of most of the smoke.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) sent two helicopters for water bombing on Friday. Cassa and Hercules aircraft from the Air Force are ready for cloud seeding over the next month.
As the haze obscures visibility and provokes numerous coughing fits in Singapore, there has been a 22 percent increase in outbound flight searches this week, compared to the previous week, according to global travel search site Skyscanner. Bali, Bangkok and Hong Kong topped the searched destinations.
Chairman of the Indonesian Travel and Tour Companies Association (ASITA) Asnawi Bahar, however, said there had been no indication of a rise in the number of tourists from Singapore, or cancellations of visits by Indonesians to Singapore.
'We have not seen any impact of haze. Demand from both inbound and outbound tourists between the two countries remain shealthy,' said Asnawi.
'But we're going to have a meeting on June 28th to update and review the problem because if the haze continues in the next few months, it will severely impact the travel industry.'
Smailing Tour spokesman Wisnu Wardhana said the agency had not seen any decrease in demand to Singapore.
'There have been no cancellations for packages that include visits to Marina Bay Sands, Raffless, Merlion Park or Universal Studios. We just sent 7 groups of travelers to Singapore, and we are going to send another group next week,' he said.
Around 1.5 million Indonesian visited Singapore every year, accounting for around 15 percent of total tourist arrivals in Singapore. (asw)