Adek Berry / AFP / Getty Images

Indonesia arrests 7 over haze-inducing forest fires

The individuals arrested could face up to 15 years in jail and heavy fines if found guilty

Police in Indonesia have arrested seven people whose companies are allegedly involved in causing forest fires that over the past two weeks have spread a choking haze across parts of the country and to its neighbors. The issue has prompted flight cancellations, school closings and raised fears that this weekend's Formula One race in Singapore could be affected.

The individuals were arrested on Wednesday on Indonesia's Sumatra island, where authorities have been battling smog-belching blazes, which were started to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, national police chief Badrodin Haiti said.

“The president's instruction is clear — law enforcement must be firm so that this will not happen again next year,” Haiti told reporters late Wednesday, announcing the arrests.

While the haze and illegal fires are a regular occurrence, the fires increased in number as plantations expanded, in particular due to rising global demand for palm oil, a key ingredient in everyday goods such as shampoo and biscuits.

Authorities said some of those arrested Wednesday were executives, but did not reveal their identities or say which firms they worked for. The individuals could face up to 15 years in jail and heavy fines if found guilty of breaking Indonesian laws that ban starting forest fires.

A helicopter water bomber releases its cargo over a peatland fire in Kampar, Riau province, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, on Thursday.

Water-bombing helicopters and planes have been deployed to fight the fires, and aircraft are also cloud-seeding, which involves using chemicals to induce rain.

About 3,000 extra military and police personnel have also been sent to Sumatra to help fight the fires and catch those responsible. However, environmentalists note that few convictions have resulted from such probes in the past. 

“It will be useless if those seven proceed to the court process, got a verdict and get a very light sentence. There is a possibility of conspiracy between businessmen, and also government officers and law enforcer apparatus, and that's the one that needs to be tackled, clear up all the corrupt government officers,” Yuyun Indradi, team leader of Greenpeace's Political Forest Campaign, told Channel News Asia

A thin layer of haze shrouds skyscrapers of the central business district as workers prepare Marina Bay street circuit for this week's Formula One grand prix in Singapore on Wednesday.

The haze problem started in 1997, with what is still regarded as the most serious outbreaks on record. It followed rapid expansion of plantations in the preceding years, and coincided with an El Nino weather system that made conditions drier than usual in Indonesia.

The smog has a devastating impact on daily life every year on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo. But this year, air quality has hit hazardous levels, with tens of thousands contracting respiratory illnesses. Many flights have been canceled and schools have also closed as a result of this most recent outbreak.

From Indonesia, the smog is blown over Southeast Asia, and fouls the air in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Schools were closed in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and neighboring states on Tuesday, while dense clouds have shrouded the skyline of financial hub Singapore, where air quality remained at unhealthy levels and where Formula One's Singapore Grand Prix is scheduled to take place this weekend.

A heavy downpour brought clearer skies over the affluent city-state Tuesday, but a strong smell of burning wood and foliage remained in the air.

Organizers of Formula One's only night race, which sees cars speed along a brightly illuminated track alongside landmarks and is coupled with pop concerts, have said there are currently no plans to change the schedule of events for the weekend, saying in a statement that the “haze situation is highly changeable not only from day to day, but from hour to hour,” adding that it would “continue to work closely with all the relevant government authorities to receive the best possible forecasts when they are available.”

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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