Fire investigators receive death threats
INDONESIAN officials investigating forest fires were taken hostage and threatened with death by a mob allegedly linked to a palm oil company, prompting activists to decry a law enforcement crisis.
A seven-strong team on Sumatra island, which is afflicted with serious fires during the dry season every year, were probing why blazes were burning out of control despite the government’s attempts to combat them.
But as they examined a plantation where a company, Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL), was suspected of using fires to illegally clear land, a 100-strong gang forced them to delete photos and took them hostage.
The mob – suspected to be APSL employees – threatened to beat them, kill them and dump their bodies in a nearby river. They were finally released unharmed after 12 hours when police intervened, according to the Environment Ministry.
The case highlights the difficulty Indonesia faces in fighting fires that flare annually on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo. The blazes are set to clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations, shrouding Southeast Asia in toxic smog.
Last year’s fires were among the worst in living memory. They cloaked large parts of Indonesia, as well as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, with haze that caused thousands to fall ill and disrupted air travel.
Indonesia has cracked down on illegal burning by strengthening regulations and arresting hundreds accused over the practice.
But laws set by the central government are often flouted across the archipelago of over 17,000 islands where power is heavily decentralised and corruption rife, and many fires still occur every year
The team were taken hostage late on September 2 after the mob forced them to delete pictures of alleged illegal burning. The environment minister said she suspected they were employees of the plantation owner.