Schools stay shut as forest fires rage across Indonesia

A man tries to put out a forest fire near his village in Pekanbaru, Riau. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2019

Schools stay shut as forest fires rage across Indonesia

  • Health warnings issued after dense smoke blankets provinces in Java, Sumatra, Borneo

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.

Asian airlines slash flights to Hong Kong as unrest escalates

Updated 1 min 1 sec ago

Asian airlines slash flights to Hong Kong as unrest escalates

  • The cuts come as Hong Kong police on Monday fired tear gas at protesters trying to escape a besieged university
  • The unrest and an escalating Sino-US trade war has pushed the Asian financial hub into recession for the first time in a decade

SYDNEY: Several Asian airlines have cut flights to Hong Kong over the coming weeks, according to industry scheduling publication Routes Online, as anti-government protests in the city grow increasingly violent and disrupt daily life.

Routes online said latest schedules showed cancelations from PT Garuda Indonesia (Persero) Tbk, India’s SpiceJet Ltd, Malaysia’s AirAsia Group Bhd, and the Philippines’ PAL Holdings Inc. and Cebu Air Inc. .

The cuts come as Hong Kong police on Monday fired tear gas at protesters trying to escape a besieged university, while others armed with petrol bombs awaited an expected operation to oust them.

The unrest, raging for almost six months, and an escalating Sino-US trade war has pushed the Asian financial hub into recession for the first time in a decade.

On Monday, Routes Online showed Garuda has reduced weekly flights to Hong Kong to four from 21 through mid-December, SpiceJet has suspended its Mumbai-Hong Kong route through Jan. 15 and AirAsia has cut flights from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu in December and January.

Garuda and SpiceJet did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment. AirAsia said passenger numbers have been lower over the past few months and that it is adjusting capacity accordingly.

A spokeswoman for PAL Holdings’ Philippine Airlines said the carrier was using smaller planes than usual for Hong Kong as passengers were postponing travel due to safety concerns. It has also cut daily flights from Manila to four from five, she said.

A spokeswoman for Cebu Air’s Cebu Pacific said the budget carrier has cut flights from Cebu and Clark through December and January respectively due to softened demand. She said the airline nevertheless launched its Puerto Princesa-Hong Kong route on Sunday as scheduled.

Airport Authority Hong Kong on Sunday reported an October decline of 13 percent in passengers and 6.1 percent in the number of inbound and outbound flights — the steepest falls since the unrest began. It said a growing proportion of travelers were using Hong Kong as a transit point rather than a destination.

Last week, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said its business outlook was “challenging and uncertain” and that it has cut capacity and delayed four plane deliveries due to falling demand.

Major mainland Chinese carriers also reported double-digit declines in demand on so-called regional routes in September and October as protests in Hong Kong and travel restrictions to Taiwan took their toll, monthly traffic reports showed.

Routes Online said several Chinese carriers, including Air China Ltd. , China Eastern Airlines Corp. Ltd. and China Southern Airlines Co. Ltd. had filed for fresh capacity reductions to Hong Kong since late October.

China Eastern declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. Air China and China Southern did not respond to requests for comment.