Foul mood in the air as plantation firms feel the heat

MY TWO Straits Times colleagues and I were taking some photos when we were briefly stopped by a plantation owner who was worried that we would put his company in a bad light.

Even after we explained why we were there, he ejected us from his plantation - the first time I had come across such nasty behaviour in the several years that I had been covering haze-related stories in Indonesia.

"Who let them in?" the plantation owner in Pelintung, about a 20-minute drive from Dumai, asked his men.

"Tell him I am firing him," the owner of Ayu oil palm plantation company snapped after one of his men mentioned a name.

His foul mood could have been due partly to the fact that the Indonesian government has been cracking down on those who use slash-and-burn methods to clear their land. This can cause fires to spread uncontrollably.

Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya has said that those who resort to illegal open- air burning should be jailed.

Indonesia is under mounting pressure from Malaysia and Singapore, which have been badly affected by the haze and whose governments have raised the issue with Jakarta.

Residents here complain about smoke-related ailments like shortness of breath and chest pains.

Mr Harun, 54, a plantation gatekeeper who goes by only one name, said this year's haze is the worst since he started working here five years ago.

"Fire came from the west a few days ago and from the north-west before that. It felt like doomsday as the smoke shrouded us," he told The Straits Times.

Ayu and at least five other plantation companies in Dumai, and more than a dozen others in nearby districts, have been struggling to put out the fires, which their owners insisted were not started on their land. A mix of small plots belonging to local farmers and larger plantations owned by companies are found in these areas. Oil palm is the main crop.

In 2011, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a regulation requiring local governments and private companies with firefighting equipment to help put out any fire, according to Mr Raffles Panjaitan, a Forestry Ministry official.

"Previously, whenever there was a fire, people would turn to the Forestry Ministry for help. Now, everyone must get involved, and we are getting tougher. It is everybody's task... because only 20 per cent are forest fires, while the remainder are in plantations," Mr Raffles told The Straits Times.