Indonesia seals off plantations amid row with Malaysia over haze

Indonesian firefighters extinguishing a fire in Kampar, Riau province, on Sept 13, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesia has sealed off plantations operated by at least 30 companies, where fires had been spotted, as it rejected on Friday (Sept 13) Malaysian complaints about hazardous smoke drifting from its forest fires across the border.

Criminal charges have also been brought against four of the companies, Reuters reported.

At least four palm oil companies whose land had been sealed off were subsidiaries of Malaysian groups, Indonesia's Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said.

She named them as West Kalimantan-based Sime Indo Agro - a unit of Sime Darby Plantation; Sukses Karya Sawit - a unit of IOI Corporation; Rafi Kamajaya Abadi - a unit of TDM Berhad; and Riau-based Adei Plantation and Industry - a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.

A spokesman for Sime Darby's Indonesian operation Minamas Plantation said the company was not aware its plantation had been sealed off and was monitoring for hot spots. Sime Darby and IOI both said they were checking their Indonesian operations.

Sukses Karya Sawit, Rafi Kamajaya Abadi and Adei Plantation and Industry could not immediately be contacted, Reuters reported. The parent companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an escalating row over the smoke haze, a Malaysian minister said on Thursday (Sept 12) that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would write to Indonesia's President Joko Widodo to raise concerns about cross-border haze.

Malaysia closed hundreds of schools and sent half a million face masks to Sarawak this week, after the smoke built up to unhealthy levels.

Air quality in Indonesian towns closest to the fires have risen to hazardous levels and on Wednesday thousands held mass Islamic prayer for rain.

Forest fires have become an almost annual occurrence in Indonesia, especially in dry years, and Indonesia's neighbours have complained of the thick, choking haze wafting in, raising concern about health and the impact on tourism.

Ms Siti Nurbaya on Friday said she felt Malaysia had not painted an objective picture of the flames, which have ripped through parts of Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands for more than a month.

Ms Siti Nurbaya said while haze from fires in Indonesia may have crossed over to Malaysia, fires detected last week in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo and peninsular Malaysia also contributed to worsening air quality there.

"I only asked that they (Malaysians) be objective and sequential in their data analysis," she told Reuters on Friday, responding to Kuala Lumpur's remarks that it was using recent data from Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre.

Malaysia's Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin in a post on her Facebook page on Thursday evening said Indonesia "should not be in denial" and the data should speak for itself.

Ms Yeo said the Asean data put the number of hot spots in the Indonesian provinces on Borneo and on Sumatra island at 474 and 387, respectively, versus seven in Malaysia. She also claimed that wind direction meant the haze could not be from Sarawak.

Ms Siti Nurbaya said she was not seeking to look for excuses but did not "have time for polemics" and would rather work on putting out fires that she said covered a "huge" area.

Jakarta had deployed 46 helicopters for water bombing and cloud seeding, Ms Siti Nurbaya said. Indonesia has also sent thousands of security personnel to try to douse the flames.

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