The weather is hot as Bambang Hero Saharjo collects soil samples and debris in a burned-out forest in Riau, Sumatra, clues that could point to the perpetrators of the massive fires which sent choking fumes to large parts of Indonesia and the region this year. 'Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need but not every man's greed,' Indian revolutionary leader Mahatma Gandhi once said. As Mr Bambang, a fire investigator, hunts for evidence to bring the arsonists to justice, he's reminded of that greed. The scorched earth stretches for kilometres, testimony to the horrific destruction of thousands of hectares of forest and peat land in Sumatra and Kalimantan, much of it by corporations. Millions of people in the region have been forced to endure choking, poisonous fumes that damage their lungs and sting their eyes for months on end in every dry season. The fires this year were the worst since the haze that blanketed much of Southeast Asia in 1997 and 1998. Environment ministers from nations in the area have met repeatedly to try to deal with the problem and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono even made a public apology at the height of the fires this year when Singapore and the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, were affected. But determined to maximise profits, unscrupulous corporations, including Malaysian and Singaporean firms, continue to use fire to clear land for oil palm and timber plantations because it costs a fraction of using machinery. 'It costs two to three million rupiah [HK$1,715-HK$2,570] per hectare to clear the land through burning. If machinery is used, it will cost 20-30 million per hectare,' Mr Bambang said. Yet corporations could still reap large profits if they used machinery instead of fire, he said. An expert on land fires with a PhD in forestry from Kyoto University, Mr Bambang is one of Indonesia's two fire experts. His testimony makes a big difference to the outcome in court when the corporations, charged with carrying out the fires, are prosecuted. 'I often receive threatening text messages from the companies which say things like, 'Don't try to disturb us'. On other occasions, I have people coming to my house or to the university where I teach. There have been times when I've had to hide my wife and children,' he said. Mr Bambang most at risk when he's out in the vast, open forest conducting investigations. 'I can be shot at or attacked with a parang [machete] in the forest. No one will see me,' he said. Despite the threats, the quiet, unassuming Mr Bambang presses on, saying his work will eventually help to reduce the rampant destruction of the region's environment. 'If more corporations are caught and successfully prosecuted, the rest of them will become less bold in burning the land,' he said. Mr Bambang's work hazards highlight Indonesia's difficulties in stopping the fires. Those responsible are corporations earning huge dollars that enable them to grease the palms of local officials to secure land permits. Environmental Minister Rachmat Witoelar has said he hopes to reduce the fires by half next year, but green activists doubt that target can be achieved given the widespread corruption that exists in the bureaucracy. Many of these corporations operate with impunity and simply ignore legal requirements to conduct environmental impact assessments. 'More than 50 per cent of [corporations] operate without an environmental impact study as required by law,' Mr Bambang said. The fires are also partly caused by poverty. Small farmers, whose only means of clearing the land is through burning, also contribute to the fires. 'Fires are used both by large corporations and traditional farmers. However, big corporations have the means to pay for machinery and there is no excuse,' said Nazir Foead, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia's director of policy and corporate engagement. Non-governmental organisations have called on the government to provide machinery and incentives to help farmers to clear their land without burning. 'Indigenous farmers have been practising slash and burn cultivation for generations. That's their culture,' Mr Nazir said. The vast geographical area also makes it difficult for law enforcement officers to catch the perpetrators, who often set the land alight in the middle of the night to avoid detection. The devolution of power that gives local governments the right to issue permits to land-hungry corporations has further exacerbated the problem. Driven by the desire to increase revenue, local authorities have issued permits indiscriminately with little regards for the ecosystem, increasing the incidence of fires and accelerating the rate of deforestation. 'Regional autonomy has resulted in the out-of-control issuance of permits by the heads of regencies,' said Fauzi Mashud, spokesman for the Forestry Ministry. There are some 400 regencies in the country. 'Each licence was for 100 hectares. And some of these regencies issued between 100 and 200 licences. 'In the year 2000, when regional autonomy was first implemented, 1.2 million hectares of land was degraded. By the end of 2004, the figure had almost doubled to 2.3 million. At the end of 2005, the figure stood at 2.9 million hectares.' In 2003, the central government recentralised the authority to issue land permits. Forests originally covered Indonesia's 120 million hectares of land but years of rampant illegal logging and open burning has destroyed and degraded a staggering 59 million hectares of land, Mr Mashud said. The forests fires have also made Indonesia the third worst offender of greenhouse gas emissions, behind the US and China, according to a study released last month by Wetlands International and Delft Hydrolics. The study calculated that Indonesia is releasing two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per annum, mostly from the burning of the country's massive peat lands, unlike the US and China whose greenhouse gases come from fossil fuel burning. The emission of CO2 is believed to be responsible for global warming which is projected to increase droughts, floods and raise the sea levels. Green activists are complaining that the country is experiencing a prolonged dry season this year. The rains only started at the end of last month, leaving many parts of the vast archipelago desperately short of water. Environmentalists say protecting and rehabilitating the country's 21 million hectares of peat land is crucial to reducing the annual fires and the nation's soaring CO2 emissions. 'Peat land, in its natural state, is logged with water and acts as a firebreaker in the forests,' Mr Nazir said. But as the country opens up peat land for agriculture, timber plantations and timber concessions, water is drained from peat using canals, rendering the soil highly combustible. Soil from peat lands contains carbon accumulated 3,000-25,000 years ago. Indonesian peat lands are estimated to contain 125 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. 'When we burn peat land, it releases a lot of smoke. The fires are also very difficult to put out as it burns for several metres beneath the soil,' Mr Nazir said. In Central Kalimantan, 1.5 million hectares of peat land was virtually stripped bare during former president Suharto's rule under his grandiose scheme to turn the land into a mega rice field and make the country self-sufficient in rice. The plan failed and the exposed peat land is now a tinder box for fires during the dry season. WWF says the government needs to restore water to peat lands by jamming the canals with logs. Since 2003, only non-governmental organisation Wetlands International Indonesia has been working to rehabilitate the peat land in Central Kalimantan, with funds from the Canadian International Development Agency. WWF warns that unless the government takes steps to conserve existing peat land and restore water to degraded ones, it will be difficult to stop the annual summer fires. 'If those two measures are not taken, we will continue to see fires at this year's level or even worse,' Mr Nazir said. The uneven enforcement of law in the regencies also contributes to the difficulty in stopping the fires, Mr Bambang said. 'Police in some regencies are very strict in arresting people and are not so strict in others. If everyone [works together] - the police, local governments - it will take five years at the earliest to reduce the fires to a very low level.'