As forest fires continued to rage on the Indonesian island of Sumatra yesterday, environmental activists cited corruption and weak law enforcement as factors behind the smog that regularly blows across the Malacca Strait into Malaysia and Singapore.
The worst fires are currently burning in Sumatra's Riau province, in the districts of Dumai, Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir.
Corruption at the local government level often results in authorities turning a blind eye to fires started on land leased by big plantation companies, said Greenpeace Indonesia.
"There is lots of corruption taking place at the local level," said Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace Indonesia's forest campaign. "Foreign investors operating in Indonesia should not pay bribes so that they can carry out wrongdoing."
In 2011, the central government strengthened its efforts to reduce deforestation by imposing a moratorium on the issuance of new land concessions, but local authorities have not fallen into line.
"It is very difficult to control everything at the local level," said Greenpeace's Bustar.
On June 14, Riau governor Rusli Zainal was detained by the Corruption Eradication Commission for his alleged involvement in two separate graft cases. One of them involved a forestry permit.
Greenpeace's analysis of Nasa hotspot data on Sumatra during June 11-21 revealed hundreds of fire hotspots on palm oil concessions owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean firms.
"Palm oil producers must immediately deploy fire crews to extinguish these fires," Bustar said. "But really cleaning up their act starts with adopting a zero-deforestation policy."
Bustar said big Malaysian and Singaporean companies need to "clean-up" their suppliers to ensure they are not engaged in setting fires to clear land.
Those companies source palm oil from smallholders who typically cultivate between two and five hectares of land. Smallholders account for 35-40 per cent of Indonesia's total palm oil output.
"[Big companies] need to raise the awareness among smallholders not to burn the land," Bustar said. "As plantation companies are large corporations with many resources, they must bear the most responsibility for preventing fires."
Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been blanketed in hazardous smog from the burning forests since last week. Forest fires on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan previously sent noxious haze into neighbouring countries in 1997, 2002, 2005 and 2008.
The smog in 1997 was one of the worst ever instances of forest fire pollution, as fires burnt for months before they were extinguished, causing an estimated economic loss of US$4 billion to the region.
The severity of this year's smog has highlighted how little has been done to address, let alone eradicate, the problem.
Indonesian authorities also face great difficulties in investigating the fires in their efforts to bring guilty parties to justice.
"Quite a few [plantation] companies will put up a fight to prevent [investigators] from entering their land," said Indonesian fire investigator Bambang Hero Saharjo.
"Often, they also falsify their maps … making it difficult and time-consuming to verify the location of hotspots," he said.
Greenpeace Indonesia warned of more forest fires to come as the country approaches gears up for a general election in 2014 as local authorities typically hand land concessions to companies that help bankroll their political campaigns.
"This has happened in the past," said Bustar.
"I ask the public to be aware of this, to make sure that our forests and peatland are not sacrificed for political deals."