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Behind the hazardous smog: illegal fires in Sumatra
The illegal burning of land to make way for new plantings of pulp timber and palm oil trees is a regular occurrence on Indonesia's Sumatra Island, where many of the lucrative crops are grown.

The smoke haze that comes with it has become a normal part of life for Indonesians living in the area.

However, the massive cloud of pollution has this year reached unprecedented levels in neighbouring countries, creating condemnation of the country and a practice many say should have been stopped.

Indonesia correspondent Helen Brown reports from Riau Province in Sumatra.
Transcript
KESHA WEST, PRESENTER: The illegal burning of land to make way for new plantations of pulp timber and palm oil trees is a regular occurrence on the Indonesian island of Sumatra where many of the lucrative crops are grown and the smoke haze that comes with it has become a normal part of life for Indonesians living in that area.

But the massive cloud of pollution has this year reached unprecedented levels in neighbouring countries as well, drawing anger from Malaysia and Singapore.

Indonesia correspondent Helen Brown has this report from the province of Riau in Sumatra.

HELEN BROWN, REPORTER: This farming family is taking a break in the middle of a hot day. But the heat for them is hardly subsiding. They're palm oil growers harvesting on peat land working amidst the fires and smoke of Riau province but they're not contributing to the burning that's been going on around them. Rather, they say they've become victims of it.

RIAU FARMER (TRANSLATED): I am sad. Sad, angry and everything.

RIAU FARMER 2 (TRANSLATED): I curse the government for not giving any help with this fire.

HELEN BROWN: Behind the family home lies the reason for their pain. A few days ago, fire jumped onto their property, torching trees and taking hold in the rich soil to burn the roots underneath. It's a scene that's too difficult for the mother to look at.

ADYTIA, FARMER'S SON: She gets so sad and upset to see this all happen.

HELEN BROWN: Indonesia's Riau province has found itself at the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. It's long been a literal hotbed for the illegal practice of slashing and burning during the dry season. This year, the environmental grouping ‘Eyes on The Forest’ say there were more than 6,700 fire hot spots during June.

But it wasn't until the smoke haze created a noxious pall over Singapore and Malaysia that the Indonesian Government took action. Apologising to its neighbours and assuming responsibility for putting the fires out.

Investigations have started, and police in this area initially arrested 10 people.

TONNY HERMAWAN, ROKAN HILIR POLICE CHIEF (TRANSLATED): At this point in time the investigation has produced a result and based on the result, this fire disaster was caused not only by natural factors but also human negligence.

HELEN BROWN: But the lighting of fires had started weeks before the authorities acted. As those wanting to clear the land cheaply and easily took advantage of the drier weather.

ADYTIA, FAMERS SON: The President is not active enough for this place. Everything has been burned.

HELEN BROWN: Indonesia is the only country in a grouping of South East Asian nations yet to sign an anti-haze pact that was drawn up more than 10 years ago. Senior ministers from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have been meeting to discuss the problem. Fingers are being pointed at companies from all three countries that operate in the province.

TONNY HERMAWAN, ROKAN HILIR POLICE CHIEF (TRANSLATED): Besides handling the individuals, we're also helping the provincial police and the Environment Ministry in investigating areas where company land is burnt.

HELEN BROWN: But any action is too late for this family. They say they've done the right thing obtaining a proper licence and clearing the land with machinery.

RIAU FARMER (TRANSLATED): At first we opened the land. It was a forest. I bought it from the locals. I spent four million rupiah per hectare to have the trees cut down and stacked.

HELEN BROWN: As both the good and damaged fruit from the surviving trees is brought in, the family has little faith that the culprits will be caught and punished.

This is just one of many stories that a combination of climate and weather has reminded the rest of the world what goes on here year after year. Officials say they will work hard to bring those responsible to account. But it's going to take more than the arrest of a few individuals to convince people here that authorities are serious.

Later in the day, smoke starts billowing again. The heat in the peat soil fanned by the afternoon winds.

It's a sobering reminder of just how difficult it will be to extinguish not just the fires but the attitude that goes with them.
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