Indonesia expects to control haze from forest fires within 30 days

JAKARTA, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Indonesia will take 30 days to bring smouldering forest fires under control, the national disaster management agency said on Friday, as smog from the fires pushes pollution in Southeast Asia to record highs.

The region has suffered for years from annual bouts of smog caused by slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia’s islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, but governments have failed to tackle the problem.

“We expect there will be a potential for haze because of the El Nino effect until the end of November, but we are targeting to put out the majority of the fires by mid-October,” agency spokesman Sutopo Nugroho told Reuters.

Indonesia has faced criticism from neighbours and green groups for not doing enough to prevent the fires, which cause millions of dollars worth of damage to health and the environment every year.

This week, Indonesia said it was investigating about 100 companies, including an unnamed Malaysian firm, in the latest crackdown to tackle smog worsened by a prolonged dry season. The rainy season usually begins in November.

Next week, authorities will name several companies likely to face sanctions for starting fires, including possible withdrawal of licenses, Indonesia’s environment and forestry minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, told a news conference on Friday.

Malaysia on Friday announced plans to evacuate 173 of its citizens “badly affected by the haze surrounding Riau province” from provincial capital Pekanbaru, using two C-130 Hercules aircraft.

Plantation companies, some of which are listed in Singapore, and smallholder farmers often get blamed for using slash-and-burn practices to clear land for palm oil and agriculture.

Indonesian law allows smallholders to slash and burn up to 2 hectares (5 acres) of land, according to the disaster management agency, which has said the policy is being misused.

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the world’s biggest pulp and paper companies, says it is fighting fires on its large concession areas and that thousands of hectares of its plantations have been destroyed.

“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg here. El Nino will last until March next year,” Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability at APP, told Reuters.

Indonesia has deployed nearly 3,000 troops and 24 aircraft to help fight the fires. Bakar said an offer of assistance from Singapore was turned down. (Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor and Michael Taylor in JAKARTA, Trinna Leong in KUALA LUMPUR; Writing by Fergus Jensen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)