Don't let up in haze fight

Last Friday, seven officials from Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry were accosted by a violent mob during a routine land inspection in Riau province.

The gang, said to be about 100-strong, refused to let the inspectors leave unless they got rid of evidence of illegal land-clearing in Rokan Hulu, a regency where several hot spots were found during the recent haze.

The ministry said the men, believed to be hired by local palm oil firm Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL), even threatened to burn the inspectors alive and dump their bodies in the river. The seven inspectors were released the next morning, but only after they deleted photos and videos that showed vast areas of burnt land in a concession where APSL had no permission to cultivate.

Environmental activists like Greenpeace Indonesia's Mr Kiki Taufik say such blatant acts of defiance against enforcement efforts are common practice. That a company can simply hire a mob to obstruct a lawful probe reinforces the need for the authorities to continue its crackdown on individuals and firms behind slash-and-burn activities.

Under President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian police have more than doubled the number of arrests in such cases, while many plantation firms have been taken to court this year for illegal land-clearing.

The Rokan Hulu case highlights that Indonesia faces not just a difficult but also perilous challenge in its fight against illegal forest fires leading to the haze.

Even so, Indonesia and its neighbours must not let up but continue to be relentless against offenders. Last week, Parliament and the police agreed to re-open investigations into 15 firms over fire-related offences. The ministry has also been quick to act against APSL over the latest Riau incident.

These may just be the right signs to show that Indonesia is now ready to take the kid gloves off and apply the strong arm of the law to deal with recalcitrant firestarters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Don't let up in haze fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe