Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry has suspended the operations of three plantation companies and revoked the business licence of a fourth over illegal land- clearing practices, which have led to forest fires and haze in recent weeks.
South Sumatra-based palm oil companies Tempirai Palm Resources and Waringin Agro Jaya, as well as Riau's Langgam Inti Hibrindo were ordered to cease operations on Monday, while Hutani Sola Lestari, a wood pulp firm, also based in Riau, had its licence revoked.
The announcement yesterday - regarded as a significant, albeit belated, step towards combating the haze crisis - came on a day when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Kalimantan hit hazardous levels.
As of 11am, air pollution in Palangkaraya, capital of Central Kalimantan, was at a record PSI level of 1,995 - almost six times the PSI 350 reading for hazardous conditions.
However, the air across Sumatra, which had reached a PSI level of almost 1,000 previously, improved substantially, with many cities recording readings of mostly below 200 after rainfall late on Monday.
Environment and Forestry Ministry secretary-general Bambang Hendroyono said during a briefing yesterday that while the four companies have been ordered to stop work, their responsibility to prevent the fires on their concession land from spreading remains.
"These suspensions will be in effect until the criminal proceedings undertaken (against them) are completed," said Mr Bambang.
Indonesia's national police have also started parallel criminal investigations against some of those four companies, which preliminary checks have established are owned by Indonesians.
Mr Bambang said the findings from the investigations will be handed to state prosecutors to determine if company representatives will be charged in court.
"The fires in their concessions contributed to the haze, which has hurt the people's health, making them suffer," he added.
But the ministry stopped short of disclosing the names of people in management or shareholders of the four companies, with Mr Bambang saying that further investigations are needed before doing so.
The Straits Times was unable to reach representatives of the four firms for comment.
However, Tempirai Palm Resources and Langgam Inti Hibrindo had previously been identified by the police as suspects and accused of breaching Indonesia's environmental laws.
If found guilty, the individuals behind the two companies could be jailed.
Mr Bambang said his ministry plans to complement police investigations by separately launching civil action against the companies, which could lead to hefty fines if they are found guilty later.
Previous efforts by the government to stop slash-and-burn practices have failed to tackle the issue of illegal forest fires and the haze problem. This was due mainly to poor coordination between ministries and enforcement agencies, as well as the lack of political will to get tough with errant plantation companies.
The latest enforcement efforts came a week after Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan pushed for recalcitrant companies behind fires that produce the haze engulfing parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to be punished.
President Joko Widodo has also deployed thousands of policemen and soldiers to help fight fires.
The authorities have hinted that more individuals and companies are expected to be dealt with in the days ahead for breaching Indonesia's environmental laws.