Indonesia punishes 23 companies for causing forest fires

The World Bank estimates that Indonesia's economy has lost $16 billion due to the fires, which have been started to make room for pulp and palm oil plantations.

This undated aerial image shows an area affected by forest fire in Riau province, Indonesia.

Indonesian government has punished 23 companies for causing forest fires that spread thick, smoky haze around Southeast Asia, an official said Tuesday.

The Forestry Ministry's investigations director, Brotestes Panjaitan, said that 33 more companies are under scrutiny and waiting for decisions on possible punishment.

Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya announced Monday that a total of 56 companies were involved in the land-clearing activities that led to the fires.

She added 23 of them, mostly pulp wood and palm oil plantations operating on Sumatra and Borneo islands, have received punishments ranging from administrative sanctions to revocation of licenses.

Three companies shut down as their licenses were revoked, Ms. Nurbaya said, while the licenses of 16 were suspended and four companies were placed under close observation.

"We do not hesitate to take stern legal actions against companies found violating the law," said Mr. Panjaitan. "We are now considering the kinds of sentences for the remaining 33 companies."

Forest fires have been an annual problem in Indonesia since the mid-1990s, but this year's was the worst since 1997 when blazes spread across nearly 10 million hectares.

The fires have created an ecological disaster, health problems and economic losses – 2.1 million hectares (8,063 square miles) of land burned, 21 deaths, and more than half a million people suffering respiratory problems.

The World Bank has estimated that Indonesia's economy has lost $16 billion due to the fires, more than double what was spent on rebuilding Aceh province after the 2004 tsunami.

National police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti said police were processing 301 cases of forest fires set by individuals and corporations, with three of them having been handed to the Attorney General's Office for further legal proceedings.

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