The highest Islamic authority in Indonesia has declared it a sin, or haram, for Muslims to intentionally burn a forest or plantation.
Dr Chuzaimah T. Yanggo from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) told reporters yesterday that a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, has been issued by the council in relation to the burning of land in the country.
"The fatwa specifically addresses the intentional burning of forest and plantation land, we are not referring to accidental fires," she said.
MORAL VALUES AT STAKE
We understand that applying the law in its material form would not suffice. But there is something more important, which is moral (values).
ENVIRONMENT AND FORESTRY MINISTER SITI NURBAYA BAKAR
Citing a Quran verse, Dr Chuzaimah added that facilitating, neglecting or taking advantage of the burning of forest or plantation land is haram. Dr Chuzaimah, a senior member of the fatwa committee in the MUI, was speaking at a press conference that the council jointly held with the Environment and Forestry Ministry.
Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, particularly in the rural areas of the country.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar hopes the move by MUI will help drive home the message in rural Indonesia that it is morally wrong to use fire to clear land.
"We understand that applying the law in its material form would not suffice," said Ms Siti. "But there is something more important, which is moral (values)."
Indonesia has been grappling with the issue of illegal forest fires - a lead cause of the annual transboundary haze crisis - for years.
To prevent a repeat of last year's record air pollution levels, Jakarta has been coming down hard on culprits who use fire to clear land, mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
Despite the recent crackdown on individuals and companies that use the slash-and-burn method to clear land, such fires still occur.
This latest action by MUI and the ministry comes after two recent incidents in Riau province, where locals prevented government officials from investigating farming violations, allegedly at the behest of errant plantation companies.
Ms Siti said her ministry is now in discussion with MUI on how the fatwa can be enforced.
The announcement by MUI was welcomed by observers such as Dr Badrus Sholeh, a senior lecturer at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.
"It is very clear in the Quran that man shall not damage the earth... including by way of burning the forest," said Dr Badrus.
He added that the religious approach supports the government's efforts to eradicate illegal burning and called for local clerics to help to communicate the fatwa.
Satellite data from the Global Forest Watch website showed 295 fire alerts over Kalimantan on Sunday, while Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) recorded 351 hot spots on the same day. Those figures, however, were nowhere near the 668 fires reported this time last year in Kalimantan.
BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said some regencies, such as Ketapang and Sambas, have yet to raise their emergency status so that national firefighting resources can be deployed to help.
• Additional reporting by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja