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.


Philippine president Duterte calls out Facebook after ‘arbitrary shutdown’ of accounts

Updated 27 min 32 sec ago

Philippine president Duterte calls out Facebook after ‘arbitrary shutdown’ of accounts

  • ‘You know, Facebook, insurgency is about overturning government’
  • ‘What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us?’

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte questioned why he should allow Facebook to continue operating in the Philippines after the social media giant removed accounts he said supported his government’s interests, including fighting insurgents.
Facebook said last week it had removed a Philippine network of fake accounts whose operators tried to conceal their identities and used “coordinated inauthentic behavior” to mislead people.
Duterte did not specify which Facebook accounts he meant. He said he had not thought of specific steps to take on the issue, though he sought a meeting with the American company in his televised remarks Monday night on a range of topics.
“You know, Facebook, insurgency is about overturning government,” Duterte said. “What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us?”
“If you cannot help me protect government interest, then let us talk. We may or we may not find the solution. If we cannot, then I’m sorry,” Duterte said.
Facebook said in its announcement last week that its investigation into the fake, misleading content “found links to Philippine military and Philippine police” behind them.
The Philippine military and police, however, said none of their official Facebook accounts was removed.
Military chief of staff Gilbert Gapay said an account of a military-backed private group called “Hands Off Our Children,” which campaigns against recruitment of students and children by communist guerrillas, was removed, and he asked that the account be reinstated.
“Their grievances are legitimate, and their calls urgent,” Gapay said, adding that the “arbitrary shutdown” of the account undermined the efforts of a group of parents who were raising awareness of “the vulnerability of children at the hands of communist front organizations.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte was among those opposed to Facebook’s shutdown of the group’s account, which he said amounted to censorship.
“They may use as justification inauthentic behavior but the effect is censorship because the idea contained in that page was deleted,” Roque said, urging the group to bring the issue to court.
Asked if the Duterte administration agrees with the use of fake accounts to deliver a message to the public, Roque said the government is not aware of whether the accounts were fake and would not know how Facebook reached that conclusion.
There was no immediate comment from Facebook officials.