Indonesia revokes or suspends land-clearing licences of 27 firms linked to land and forest fires

This picture taken on April 13, 2016 shows thick smoke from a forest fire in Leuser National Park, in Aceh province.
This picture taken on April 13, 2016 shows thick smoke from a forest fire in Leuser National Park, in Aceh province. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesia has revoked or suspended land-clearing licences of 27 companies in connection with the land and forest fires that led to the haze crisis last year.

Environment and Forestry Ministry officials told The Straits Times on Monday (July 11) that the sanctions were handed down to the firms after they failed to prevent fires in their concession lands.

Their neglect resulted in what was one of the worst environmental crises for South-east Asia in recent history, one that brought Indonesia on the brink of a national emergency in 2015.

Besides the sanctions, the ministry is also in the final stages of filing civil lawsuits against five oil palm companies allegedly responsible for some of last year's fires.

"We carried out verification whenever there were fire (incidents), and we learnt that they were the companies (behind the fires)," said the ministry's environmental dispute settlement director Jasmin Ragil Utomo.

"Even if the companies have taken precautionary measures, they are still responsible," he added.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Monday that taking errant companies to court is a last resort, after they failed to "correct their mistakes and improve".

Indonesia's tough action on firms and policies, as well as improved system of monitoring, better technology and more coordinated operations by patrol teams in the field have helped to keep the number of hotspots down, officials said.

Two satellites belonging to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded 1,043 hot spots from Jan 1 to July 9 over Indonesia - a figure which is only a third of the number of fires detected in the same period last year.

Ms Siti said the ministry has issued stern warnings to three companies for fires that flared over their concessions in Riau and Jambi provinces in Sumatra last week.

Timber estate firm Sumatera Riang Lestari, and Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia, a consortium of domestic and international conservation groups aimed at halting deforestation, have since resolved the issue, while rubber company Lestari Asri Jaya is still "being chased" to comply with guidelines, she said.

"The director-general has issued a warning and written a letter. If the problem is not fixed in the next one to two days, I will summon them to start legal process," she added.

Although the country has "passed the first critical period" between March and June, efforts are ongoing to ensure hot spots count remain low, Ms Siti said.

"The more critical stage is... July to September, we have to pass that second phase. We must remain vigilant," she added.