JAKARTA: The last time Mulyoto was seen alive, he was rushing towards his plantation near his home in the village of Lintas Utara in the Indonesian province of Riau at 3pm on Wednesday (Sep 11).
The 69-year-old was alarmed when forest fires began to inch closer to his farmland, threatening to destroy his livelihood, according to news portal Detik.
Armed with fire extinguishing equipment, he headed into his farm, thinking that he could contain the fire on his own. But he never returned.
“(Mulyoto) was found completely charred, lying flat on his face,” a local police captain told the Indonesian news portal.
Mulyoto became the latest casualty of the forest fires that have been raging parts of Sumatra, Java and the Indonesian part of Borneo this dry season.
While the government has yet to release an official death toll, news of deaths have been reported on local media.
The forest fires have so far claimed the lives of two siblings aged seven and 11 in West Kalimantan province, a fire fighter in Jambi province and at least six farmers in Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan.
According to the Indonesian National Disaster Mitigation Agency, more than 285,000ha of land have been burned since the dry season began in June.
On Friday morning, a total of 3,673 hotspots were detected across three provinces in Sumatra and three provinces in the Indonesian part of Borneo, compared to 1,092 hotspots detected in mid-August.
The forest fires have caused several Indonesian cities to be blanketed by thick smog. Neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia were not spared either.
READ: Malaysian PM to write to Indonesia's leader as row over haze flares
The haze has even caused a diplomatic spat between Malaysia and Indonesia after Malaysia lodged an official complaint last week.
In response, Indonesia insisted that no haze from the country had travelled beyond its border, saying that the smog affecting Malaysia could have originated from Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia.
Mdm Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Indonesia's Environmental Affairs and Forestry Minister, went even further as saying that some of the palm oil companies believed to have been responsible for the forest fires in Indonesia were subsidiaries of Malaysian groups.
The government has sealed off plantations operated by at least 30 companies, where fires had been spotted, and brought criminal charges against four.
AIR QUALITY WORSENS
On Friday afternoon, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore topped the list of major cities with the worst air quality according to Swiss-based group AirVisual.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Kuala Lumpur reached a “very unhealthy” level of 286 at one monitoring station while two others recorded an “unhealthy” level of 159 and 154.
In Singapore, the AQI ranged between 156 and 160. AQI measures the concentration of six major pollutants in the air.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the air quality in Pekanbaru, Riau was far worse. It is not listed on AirVisual because it is not considered a major city.
One monitoring station in the city recorded an AQI of 580 on Friday afternoon, a level which is considered “hazardous”, meaning that the air is deemed toxic and poses serious risk to the heart and lungs.
The haze was so thick in the city that visibility dropped to as low as 300 metres.
For more than a week, schools in most of Riau province were closed while residents were told to stay indoors.
The neighbouring province of Jambi, where air quality in one area reached a hazardous level of 347, also took similar measures.
“We are facing a haze emergency. Today is the worst day in the two months since fire rages across Riau,” Pekanbaru-based environmental activist Mr Rawa El Amady told CNA on Friday.
“The air quality has reached a hazardous level. Even animals are at risk of lung infection, let alone humans. Government officials in their air-conditioned offices must do more so citizens can breathe fresh air.”
Mr Tauhid Ahmad, executive director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economic and Finance (INDEF) told CNN Indonesia that the forest fires have also taken its toll on the Indonesian economy.
“The industry is suffering because transportation of goods is hampered. The aviation sector is also affected because aeroplanes couldn’t land in several airports with low visibility,” Mr Ahmad was quoted as saying.
“Tourism is also affected while businesses will see a decline in productivity because people cannot go out and perform their usual activities. Then, there is the cost of treating people for their health problems.”
"WE ARE DOING OUR BEST"
This year’s forest fires are the worst since the 2015 haze crisis, when smog from forest fires in Indonesia reached as far as Hanoi and Phnom Penh.
Scientists had estimated that the 2015 fires released CO2 emissions comparable to Japan or India's annual fossil fuel emissions, exposed more than 69 million people to unhealthy air, and cost more than US$16 billion in damages.
That year, 19 people died and an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections were reported.
Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry spokesman Djati Witjaksono told CNA that the government is committed not to let the forest fires reach the same level as 2015.
Mr Witjaksono blamed the worrying situation on the El Nino weather phenomenon, which also hit the region four years ago.
“If it weren’t for El Nino it wouldn’t be this bad. Although the phenomenon was milder than that in 2015, it has triggered a prolonged drought. Some areas have not seen rain for months. That’s why the trees are drier than normal and the fires more widespread compared to the last two or three years before,” he told CNA.
The same phenomenon has also been blamed for the uncontrollable fires in the Brazilian Amazon recently as well as fires in California and China.
“The government has intensified joint patrols with police and military personnel in areas deemed prone to wildfires. We also ramped up measures to extinguish fires,” Mr Witjaksono said.
“We are doing our best to prevent and extinguish the fires.”
The military, police, disaster mitigation agency and the forestry ministry have deployed a total of 23,000 personnel to six provinces with the most number of hotspots.
The disaster mitigation agency also deployed 34 water-bombing helicopters to help extinguish the fires from above while waiting for the rainy season, which scientists predict would not start until some time next month.
SLASH-AND-BURN IS THE REAL CULPRIT
However, a scientist pointed out that the real cause of forest fires is the slash-and-burn techniques employed by plantation workers and owners.
"El Nino only exacerbated the fire," said Mr Henry Purnomo from the Centre for International Forestry Research.
Slash-and-burn is preferred as it is the cheapest and fastest way to clear land, he said.
“Clearing land using slash-and-burn techniques only costs US$20 per hectare while other methods can cost more than US$400 per hectare. The risk of fire spreading is very high but there is a strong economic incentive to use this method.”
READ: Indonesian province moves to curb slash-and-burn clearances as fires rage
Disaster Mitigation Agency chief Doni Monardo backed the scientist’s assessment.
“We went on a helicopter ride recently and we can see that most of the lands on fire bordered plantations,” he said in a statement.
Police in Riau recently arrested nine people in different parts of the province for burning forests to clear land.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) said the government must name all of the companies whose concessions are on fire.
“It is important for the public to know which companies may be responsible for the fires so people can make informed choices when purchasing palm oil products,” WALHI researcher Mr Wahyu Perdana told CNA.
“Slash-and-burn is cheap. If you name and shame them, there is an incentive for companies to stop employing the practice.”
Forestry ministry spokesman Mr Witjaksono however said the government cannot divulge any names before they have collected enough evidence to launch a formal lawsuit.
The minister, Mdm Siti Nurbaya, meanwhile, said at least four palm oil companies whose land had been sealed off were subsidiaries of Malaysian groups.
According to Reuters, she identified the four as West Kalimantan-based Sime Indo Agro – a unit of Sime Darby Plantation, Sukses Karya Sawit – a unit of IOI Corporation, Rafi Kamajaya Abadi – a unit of TDM Bhd and Riau-based Adei Plantation and Industry – a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.
A spokeswoman for Sime Darby’s Indonesian operation Minamas Plantation told Reuters that the company was not aware its plantation had been sealed off and was monitoring for hotspots.
Sime Darby and IOI both said they were checking their Indonesian operations.
Sukses Karya Sawit, Rafi Kamajaya Abadi and Adei Plantation and Industry could not immediately be contacted.