Dumai fires started by local farmers, says mayor

DUMAI, Riau province - Amid a growing row over whether foreign companies are responsible for the fires causing hazardous levels of pollution, a top local official said there are no Singapore plantation companies operating in Dumai.

The fires in Dumai were started by local farmers, said Mr Khairul Anwar, the mayor of Dumai, which is the closest to many of this year's hot spots in Riau province.

In an interview with The Straits Times, the mayor said it was difficult to get these farmers to abide by the law and not start fires to clear the land because they would do anything to protect their oil palm plantations, which are mostly about 2ha and located deep in the forest interior.

There are also farmers who came from the city centre or other regions in Indonesia. As they have deeper pockets, their oil palm plantations are very much bigger - 100ha.

"They may be investors who tied up with foreigners, maybe Singapore or Malaysian nationals, or from other countries," said Mr Khairul. "Many just come in and occupy the land illegally."

While there are no Singapore companies in Dumai, it is not clear if they are operating in other parts of Riau.

The mayor acknowledged that the vast geography made it difficult to police and act against such illegal plantation activity.

Dumai is 90 per cent forest and much of the ground is peat soil, made up of decomposed plant materials. Peat burns easily and often smoulders underground.

The mayor said he had no plans to evacuate residents even if pollution levels worsen, but would appeal to the people to pray for rain.

Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the haze problem is finally getting some media attention after it was overshadowed by a roiling debate over the government's move to cut fuel subsidies.

Dailies like the Jakarta Post and Kompas carried reports of the haze on their front pages, while television news began to feature segments on how the worsening air pollution had prompted flight cancellations or delays in areas like Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province.

The Jakarta Globe on Friday also reported the first known death related to the fires in Riau.

According to the daily newspaper, a man living in Rokan Hilir was killed and his wife seriously injured after they were caught in a fire.

The man died of burns, and his wife remained in a critical condition, the Globe reported without further elaboration.


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