Indonesia police: Arrests over land, forest fires more than double this year

A resident tries to put out a bush fire with a tree branch in Pekanbaru, Riau, Sumatra island, Indonesia on Aug 23, 2016.
A resident tries to put out a bush fire with a tree branch in Pekanbaru, Riau, Sumatra island, Indonesia on Aug 23, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS/ANTARA FOTO

JAKARTA - Indonesian police have nabbed more than 450 suspects in connection with land and forest fires this year, as part of a wider move to get tough on errant farmers and companies that still insist on using the outlawed slash-and-burn land-clearing method.

National police chief Tito Karnavian told reporters on Thursday (Aug 25) that the arrests, together with other preventive measures put in place by the government and more favourable weather conditions, have helped to keep the number of hot spots lower this year.

"The number of people arrested this year has risen compared to last year," he said.

"This is one factor why the number of forest fires have fallen significantly," the four-star police general added.

Indonesia's chief detective Ari Dono Sukmanto on Thursday said that besides the 454 suspects, a number of people linked to nine companies that allegedly "started the fires" were also arrested.

"The nine companies are still being investigated," he said.

Last year, police arrested 196 individuals and people linked to 25 errant companies.

Millions in South-east Asia were affected by thick smoke from the fires that covered many parts of the region in the second half of last year.

To prevent a repeat of the 2015 haze crisis, President Joko Widodo has ordered the authorities to clamp down on errant farmers and companies, while beefing up fire-fighting resources in high-risk areas.

Earlier in this week, General Tito had also urged regional police chiefs to get tough on individuals and companies guilty of slash-and-burn activities. The land-clearing method has been known to spark uncontrollable forest fires that cause widespread haze across South-east Asia.

Separately, Indonesia's Ambassador to Singapore, Mr I Gede Ngurah Swajaya said that the Republic has offered assistance to put out peatland and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

"The Singaporean government has already offered to douse the fires - they have offered a plane and a helicopter," he told state news agency Antara in Jakarta on Wednesday.

He added that the Indonesian government has yet to decide whether it would accept the offer of foreign assistance because the forest fires this year "are not as hazardous as last year".

"The hot spots this year are much fewer compared to last year," said the Ambassador.

"In addition to the thorough monitoring (of fires) conducted by officials, the unusually wet dry season has been favourable to us."

Malaysia on Sunday had also offered Indonesia the use of a water-bomber to help douse fires in Sumatra. This came after haze from fires on the island hit parts of Kuala Lumpur last week.

A fleet of 12 aircraft, including water- bombers and planes for cloud-seeding operations, have been deployed in six fire-prone provinces before the dry season hits its peak next month to prevent a repeat of last year's haze crisis, the Indonesia's disaster management agency (BNPB) said on Tuesday.

BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said September is usually the month with the highest number of hot spots from forest and plantation fires, adding that the agency is focusing on mitigation operations in six provinces, including Riau and West Kalimantan.

aarlina@sph.com.sg