JAKARTA: Dense smoke from forest fires caused by slash-and-burn land clearing spread across the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Tuesday, forcing schools to remain closed and prompting health warnings.
Satellite images from the country’s aeronautics agency showed that more than 720 fire outbreaks had been detected in South Sumatra in the past 24 hours, Agus Wibowo, a spokesman for national disaster mitigation agency BNPB, said.
“The haze has caused the air quality to remain at an unhealthy level in the province,” Wibowo said.
Authorities were forced to close schools across the province, including the capital Palembang, on Monday.
Wibowo said that haze from forest fires also blanketed parts of neighboring provinces of North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu and Lampung, where hundreds of fire outbreaks were also detected.
Indonesia’s climatology and geophysics agency BMKG detected more than 1,500 fires in parts of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan in the past week, with new outbreaks in South Sumatra and Jambi, as well as in Central Kalimantan and East Kalimantan on Borneo, which shares a border with Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak states.
Sunaryo Wildan, a resident of Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra, told Arab News that thick haze had blanketed Sekayu, the district’s main town, with dust and schools were expected to remain closed for the rest of the week.
“Visibility is down to about 50 to 100 meters in the morning and evening. Air quality so far is safe, but authorities have urged locals to wear face masks when going outdoors,” Wildan said.
“The haze is causing respiratory problems and affects local farmers’ activities, too,” he added.
In the first seven months of this year, fires destroyed 11,826 ha of land and forest in South Sumatra, out of a total of 328,722 ha across Indonesia, according to BNPB.
Authorities have deployed more than 8,000 personnel to fight the latest outbreaks and are using seven helicopters to waterbomb forest fires that are inaccessible on foot.
Environmental watchdog Greenpeace accused the Indonesian government of taking a lax approach to 10 palm oil companies with the largest areas of burned land. Despite repeated fire outbreaks, none of the companies has been sanctioned or had land concessions revoked, it claimed.
“Stopping this recurring fire crisis should have been at the top of the government’s agenda since 2015. But our findings show only empty words, and weak and inconsistent law enforcement against companies,” Kiki Taufik, global head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forests campaign, said.
In July, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling declaring President Joko Widodo along with Cabinet ministers and regional administrations liable for raging forest fires in 2015.
Court rulings ordered the president and his administration to prosecute companies that burnt concession areas.
The government, however, has said that it plans to file a case review against the ruling.
“This government is not serious about law enforcement and this is a key reason the fires have returned,” Taufik said.
According to the World Bank, widespread fires in 2015 cost Indonesia $16 billion through losses in forestry, agriculture, tourism and other industries.