Police in Sumatra’s Riau province now have nine people in custody for setting forest fires that have blanketed the region and neighboring countries in haze, an official said on Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Ronny F. Sompie, a spokesman for the National Police, said in Jakarta that all nine people were farmers and they had been charged with deliberately setting fires to clear their land.
Two of them were arrested on Monday, while the rest were arrested on Tuesday.
The fire hot spots, many of them raging in peat forests, have generated huge amounts of thick haze that have driven air pollution indicators to record levels in Riau and across the Malacca Strait in Singapore and Malaysia.
The annual occurrence has been so severe this time around that it has sparked a diplomatic spat, with Indonesian officials blaming local companies owned by Singaporean and Malaysian palm oil and forestry companies for the hot spots.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sought to ease tensions on Monday when he issued an apology to Singapore and Malaysia for the impact of the haze and criticized the Riau administration for not taking steps to prevent the forest fires from getting out of control.
Environmental groups have leveled much of the blame on plantations and smallholdings linked to palm oil companies, and on Tuesday the association governing the sustainable production of the commodity acknowledged that some of its members might be implicated.
Darrel Webber, the secretary general of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, said in a statement that the organization was “critically looking into this to first of all identify the member organizations that have been indicated as implicated.”
“Secondly to instruct them to immediately deploy measures that will terminate any open burning that may have been caused by them; and thirdly, RSPO will take remedial actions against these companies if the forest fires are due to negligent conduct,” he said.
He added of the companies reported to be responsible for the fires, five were RSPO members: Jatim Jaya Perkasa, Tabung Haji Plantations, Sinar Mas, Kuala Lumpur Kepong and Sime Darby.
“The RSPO will be directing these member companies to submit digital maps of their plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan within the next 48 hours, which will be used to assess and analyze against the published mapping of the forest fires,” Webber said.
“The analysis will assist in confirming the locations of the forest fires in comparison with the location of plantations owned by these member companies, which will then form the basis for the next step in the investigation,” he added.
He said that if the RSPO determined the companies were responsible for the fires, it would not hesitate to take action. However, he also said “other regulatory enforcements must immediately and urgently step in” to address the problem.
The RSPO, he went on, “firmly condemns any negligent activities related to this” and “is highly concerned about the impact on communities and children living in these countries and strongly advocates urgent measures to be taken to cease this heightening pollution.”
The RSPO members linked to the fires have reiterated they abide by the association’s guidelines on environmental stewardship and sustainability.
Tan Sri Dato’ Mohd Bakke Salleh, the president and group chief executive of Malaysia’s Sime Darby, said the company “fully supports the initiative by the RSPO.”
“I would like to reiterate Sime Darby’s commitment and full compliance of the zero burning policy, which is strictly embedded in all our oil palm plantation operations,” he said.
A Sime Darby spokesperson said on Monday that the company’s zero burning policy had been in place since 1985.
Sin Chuan Eng, head of sustainability at Kuala Lumpur Kepong, said the company would arrange to submit the digital maps of its plantations to the RSPO and would cooperate fully in the investigation.