Indonesia hits back over haze from forest fires

Malaysia has closed hundreds of schools as the haze enveloping many parts of the country intensifies. (Bernama pic)

JAKARTA: Indonesia today rejected Malaysian complaints about hazardous smoke drifting from its forest fires across the border, saying blazes are also raging in parts of Malaysia and on Malaysian-owned plantations in Indonesia.

In an escalating row over the haze, environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said yesterday that Prime Minister Dr 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.

Indonesia’s Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar today 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.

Siti Nurbaya said while smog from fires in Indonesia may have crossed over to Malaysia, fires detected last week in Sarawak and Peninsula 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 today, responding to Kuala Lumpur’s remarks that it was using recent data from Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre.

Yeo, in a post on her Facebook page yesterday evening, said Indonesia “should not be in denial” and data should speak for itself.

Yeo said the Asean data put the number of hotspots 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.

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, Siti Nurbaya said.

Indonesia has sent thousands of security personnel to try to douse the flames. The government has also sealed off plantations operated by at least 30 companies, where fires had been spotted, and brought criminal charges against four.

At least four palm oil companies whose land had been sealed off were subsidiaries of Malaysian groups, Siti Nurbaya 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 Bhd and Riau-based Adei Plantation and Industry – a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.

A spokeswoman for Sime Darby’s Indonesian operation Minamas Plantation said the company was not aware its plantation had been sealed off and was monitoring for hotspots. 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. The parent companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.