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photo: riauonline.co.id

Indonesian Environment Team in haze investigation seized and threatened with death

Seven employees of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forests who were investigating the forest fire were taken as hostages by more than a hundred residents in Rokan Hulu District, in Riau Province, Indonesia.

Riau Terkini and Riauonline reported, the investigation team consisting of civil investigators and the forestry police were doing their job on Friday (2 September), when the crowd seized them.

The crowd detained the seven investigators for about 12 hours and threatened to burn them alive and dump their bodies in a river at an oil palm plantation in Rokan Hulu.

Environment and Forests Minister Siti Nurbaya pointed the palm oil company, Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) as the one strongly suspected of mobilising the group of residents to force-seizure the team.

"The Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Forestry Police Investigation is based on the law; the officers have the authority to conduct investigations and inquiries over land and forest fires," said Siti Nurbaya, at a press conference in Jakarta last Sunday (4 September).

The Minister explained that the incident happened when the team was in the area suspected as the source of fire, which, based on the visible data from satellite, were in the areas controlled by APSL.

"Since the fires did spread, I confirmed to do investigations in the burnt areas,” said Minister Siti Nurbaya.

"With this incident, the investigation of PT APSL will become our top priority," she added.

The minister condemned the incident and claimed it would not reduce the firmness of The Ministry of Environment and Forests in prosecuting the arsonist of land and forest fires in the province.

The seven hostages were finally freed on Saturday, TNI (The Indonesian National Army) Task Force for Riau’s forest fire said it helped free the investigation team.

Deputy Commander of Riau’s Army Task Force, Colonel I Nyoman Parwata said the hostages were initially sealed in the burnt area in Rokan Hulu.

A photo tweeted by Mr Sutopo Nugroho, Head of National Board for Disaster Management, revealed the area.

This is the location where the seven staffs of KLHK (Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry) were held, while they were investigating the 2,000 ha of land on fire belonging to PT APSL in Rokan Hulu District, Riau Province / photo KLHK
This is the location where the seven staffs of KLHK (Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry) were held, while they were investigating the 2,000 hectare of land on fire belonging to PT APSL in Rokan Hulu District, Riau Province / photo KLHK

The incident illustrates the difficulties confronting Indonesia in handling the illegal burning of vegetation to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, that causes clouds of smoke every dry season.

Minister Siti Nurbaya said there are about 30 companies subjected to administrative sanctions for land and forest fires.

Under Indonesian law, companies found guilty of clearing land by burning can be fined up to 10 billion IDR (S$ 1,031,000), and the management faces up to 10 years in jail. Companies that fail to control fires started elsewhere but which spread into their concession land also face punishment.

She also threatened permanent revocation of licenses of companies involved in the case.

In another news, Tempo reported on 24 August that a Dumai Missile Detachment member, First Private Wahyudi died while extinguishing land and forest fires in Rokan Hilir.

Before the body was found, Wahyudi was declared missing for six days when wildfires swept Rokan Hilir.

His body was found about 250 meters from the location of the first victim went missing, in the vicinity of Kepenghuluan Labuhan Tangga Besar forest areas.

Head of Information of the army in Pekanbaru, Mayor Infantry Syafrianto, suspected Wahyudi died because of lack of oxygen in the siege of smoke when extinguishing the fire.

He questioned the conscience of the perpetrators. "How many more victims must fall until they are aware that this is wrong," he said.