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Indonesia president visits forest fires amid smog crisis

President visits source of forest fire smog choking Singapore and Malaysia, as companies involved begin to lose operating permits

By Ainur Rohmah,

JAKARTA – Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited firefighters battling forest fires in Sumatra on Wednesday as smog continued to spread across a swathe of Southeast Asia.

The haze from the burning of areas for agricultural purposes – an annual problem – has left schools closed flights grounded, and also blanketed parts of Singapore and Malaysia. Villagers have also been evacuated from the forested province of Riau in Central Sumatra due to highly poisonous levels of air pollution.

Widodo’s visit Wednesday came the day after the Environment and Forestry Ministry sanctioned four companies involved in the fires.

Ministry Secretary General Bambang Hendroyono said three palm oil plantation companies have had their permits frozen and one forestry company has had its license revoked. All were Indonesian-owned and operated in Sumatra.

“They were ordered to suspend their operations starting from Tuesday,” Bambang explained. “If there is evidence of criminal violations, we will immediately revoke their licenses.”

The suspensions will remain in effect until police have finished criminal proceedings. 

Last week, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar revealed that 58,000 hectares (145,000 acres) of forest had been burnt, largely on Sumatra and Kalimantan — the Indonesian portion of Borneo.

The illegal burning is carried out by palm oil companies to save costs and time. One company prevented from operating, PT Langgam Inti Hibrindo (LIH), has denied burning forests.

Its Senior Community Development Officer, Lagiman — who goes by only one name — said the company would support the efforts of law enforcement officials to uncover the causes of the fires.

“We have made sure that LIH has never committed arson,” Lagiman said, as quoted by “We have continued to work nonstop 24 hours a day to help put out the fires.”