230 arrested in Indonesia on suspicion of starting forest fires

Travellers wearing masks at Pekanbaru's international airport in Riau province yesterday. Two aircraft were yesterday deployed in the city with the discovery of dense clouds that could be seeded to induce rain. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA
Travellers wearing masks at Pekanbaru's international airport in Riau province yesterday. Two aircraft were yesterday deployed in the city with the discovery of dense clouds that could be seeded to induce rain. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Indonesia has arrested 230 people suspected of starting fires in forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan, which have spread thick, acrid smoke across South-east Asia, as the country carried out cloud-seeding operations on Wednesday in three provinces.

Speaking to reporters, Indonesian national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo on Wednesday also named an operational director of a South Sumatra-based company as a suspect, adding that somebody in such a position has the greatest responsibility to take mitigation measures in land management.

"There should be maximum efforts to prevent the land under (a company's) concessions from fires. Companies are mostly negligent," he told reporters.

Under the current environment law, the suspects could be prosecuted and be given a maximum 10-year prison sentence for setting fires to clear land.

The forest fires are often blamed on smallholders who light up the forest during the dry season to quickly clear land so that they can grow crops such as oil palm, or believed to be set by large plantation companies in order to plant oil palm and pulpwood trees for paper.

Indonesia said last week that it has sealed off plantations operated by 42 companies, including subsidiaries of four Malaysian groups and one Singapore-affiliated firm, after fires were detected in their concessions.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's national disaster management agency BNPB carried out cloud-seeding operations on Wednesday in Riau, North Sumatra and Central Kalimantan.

After the operation in Riau, rainfall of medium intensity fell for around 30 minutes in Dumai, BNPB's acting spokesman Agus Wibowo said in a statement yesterday.

Two aircraft were yesterday deployed in Pekanbaru, Riau province, with the discovery of dense clouds that could be seeded to induce rain. Heavy rain fell in Meranti regency yesterday.

One aircraft was heading southeast of Pekanbaru, and the other heading north-north-east, said Mr Samba Wirahma, a cloud-seeding field coordinator in Pekanbaru with the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology.

Indonesia said this week that it was deploying thousands more officers to battle the forest fires on two of the country's five main islands - Sumatra and Kalimantan - bringing the total number from 9,072 to 29,039.

 
 
 

From January to last month, tracts in the world's third-biggest tropical rainforest consumed by fires totalled 328,724ha, of which 27.3 per cent were peatlands, according to BNPB. The two biggest tropical rainforests are in the Amazon and Congo basins.

The BNPB emergency response team has used at least 52 helicopters for water bombing every day since the forest fires started spreading about a month ago.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's weather forecast agency BMKG said there were 1,080 hot spots in the country last Saturday.

However, over the next three days, the number of hot spots fell, though it rose again on Wednesday.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2019, with the headline '230 arrested in Indonesia on suspicion of starting forest fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe