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Indonesia Bars Firms Tied To Smoke Cloud Charges That Illegal Burning Led To The Region’s Health Crisis

Indonesia began cracking down Friday on companies suspected of starting the forest and brush fires that have shrouded much of Southeast Asia with an eye-burning haze for weeks.

The Forestry Ministry revoked the operating permits of 29 companies after they failed to respond to accusations they started illegal fires, the official Antara news agency said.

Hundreds of fires set to clear land cheaply have been burning out of control across Indonesia for two months. A thick smog cloud has drifted to neighboring Malaysia, southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines, as well as Singapore and Brunei, causing air quality problems that have threatened the health of millions.

The ministry had given the suspected plantation and timber companies until Thursday to file reports on their operations.

The report said 37 others companies also failed to respond, but those outfits weren’t licensed to begin with. It wasn’t clear what action would be taken against them.

Critics have complained that Indonesia has not been doing enough to punish the culprits and put out the flames, which have burned about 1.5 million acres of land. Several other countries have offered fire-fighting assistance.

Indonesia has deployed thousands of firefighters and used satellite images and other technology to pinpoint the location of the flames.

Normally, heavy monsoon rains extinguish fires at this time of year. However, meteorologists say El Nino, an abnormal weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean, has triggered the country’s worst drought in half a century.

Besides the smog and respiratory problems, the haze is believed to have played a part in an airplane crash that killed 234 people in Indonesia as well as several ship and boat collisions. Several governments issued travel advisories after the accidents, further damaging the region’s tourism industry.

Shifting winds and rains have provided some relief in Indonesia and Malaysia in the last two days, though pollution levels in Singapore soared on Thursday.

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