A LARGE group of about 100 men hired by an Indonesian palm oil firm took several investigators hostage last weekend in an apparent bid to stop their probe into the forest fires blamed for the region’s haze problem.
According to Jakarta Globe, the captors, believed to be mobilized by PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari, a palm oil company operating in Riau province, demanded that the investigators delete photographs and video evidence compiled in their digital cameras. They also threatened to burn their captives alive and throw their remains into a river.
The investigators were said to be investigating the burning of a 2,000-hectare area, which was believed to have been set by palm oil company workers who pretended to be local farmers.
The investigators – seven of them in total – complied with the demands but the group of captors asked for the minister in charge to travel to the area before they would allow their release. There were no reasons given as to why the minister needed to be present in the area.
Novrizal Tahar, a ministry spokesman, said Monday that the hostages were eventually released early Saturday following negotiations involving police and local officials.
The incident earned condemnation from Indonesia’s minister of environment and forestry who said the ministry was now more determined to act against illegal forest burning.
Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar added that the incident has also encouraged her ministry to take stern actions against rogue corporations in accordance with the law.
“Most likely, these illegal activities were supported by the company, who employed local farmer groups,” Siti was quoted saying in a statement on Sunday.
“Following this incident, the investigations against ASPL (the company) will be our priority. We have three important things to address with this company,” Siti added.
“First, forest area encroachment. Second, forest burning. Third, the hostage situation. The ministry will investigate and take firm action in cooperation with the relevant authorities.”
Haze largely caused by illegal slash-and-burn agricultural policies in Indonesia has affected the Southeast Asian region annually for decades.
Uncontrolled burning from fires in Riau, South Sumatra, and Kalimantan causes the smoke to spread hundreds of kilometers across the region to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, resulting in major deterioration in air quality levels, health problems, and economic losses.
Additional reporting from the Associated Press