Government punishes companies responsible for forest fires
Some 23 companies have been sanctioned, some losing their license, for setting fire to clear forests to plant palm oil trees and trees for pulp and paper companies. The resulting smoke and haze have interfered with travel and caused respiratory problems in half a million people. The crisis is set to cut GDP by 1.9 per cent.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – The government of Joko Widodo has begun punishing agricultural companies in connection with the recent environmental disaster caused by arson fires. As a result of the latter, air quality has reached dangerous levels across much of the country.

So far, the crisis has cost the country 1.9 per cent in GDP. Since investigations began two months ago and the first arrests in September, the authorities have revoked or suspended the license of 56 companies operating palm oil and pulp wood plantations. Others have come under closer scrutiny.

“We have sanctioned 23 companies in total, ranging from administrative sanctions to licence revocation, while 33 others are still in the process,” said Kemal Amas, an official with the Indonesian Environment Ministry.

Every year, during the dry season, forested land is cleared to make way for cash crops. This year, from September to November, fires set by arsonists covered large parts of the country in smoke and haze with negative consequences for the population.

Transport and schools have had to shut down and air pollution levels have increased to ten times the acceptable limit.

According to Health Ministry data, some 27 million people were affected with at least 425,700 suffering from respiratory infections due to smoke inhalation.

The government has not named any of the firms involved, but one is thought to be foreign-owned.

Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya said companies that started the fires would be punished but so would those that did not put out blazes.

It is illegal in Indonesia to clear more than two hectares of land by slash-and-burn methods, a limit exceeded by many companies.

Back in October, the government said that people caught flouting the law would face up to ten years in jail. However, local farmers have said that convictions are unlikely.

The fires come with a very high cost for Indonesia, which has been going through a major economic crisis for months.

According to the World Bank, Indonesia's forest fires and subsequent haze this year have cost the country "more than twice" the amount spent on reconstruction efforts after the 2004 Aceh tsunami.

The bank said the cost amounted to 1.9 per cent of Indonesia's gross domestic product (GDP), adding that regional and global costs (in Malaysia and Thailand for example) would be high as well.

Yet, despite their impact, fires are likely to start up again, when the rainy season ends in March, many experts say.

For his part, Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently warned that it might take at least three years before the situation is under control.

“We need firmer law enforcement so that this catastrophe does not repeat itself; it's been going on for 18 years but nobody has learnt their lesson,” Kemal Amas said.