Most land and forest fires recorded between July and August were in concessions belonging to plantation firms, but government has failed to take harsh action against them, a recent report says.
The Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi) on Tuesday said that between July and August land and forest fires were found in areas owned by 44 plantation companies in West Kalimantan, 15 companies in Riau and 15 firms in Central Kalimantan.
"Less than 20 percent of the burned land belongs to local people, the group most often blamed by the government for the fires," Walhi executive director Berry Burqon told reporters.
"The problem is those plantation firms always say they did not start the fires."
Walhi detected 24,176 hot spots in Indonesia in the first eight months of this year, of around 7,370 were in West Kalimantan and 6,720 were in Riau.
In August alone land and forest fires reportedly affected more than 1,480 hectares of land, up from only 999 hectares in July.
"We estimate that 3,626 hectares of land and forests have been burned since January, with estimated economic losses of up to Rp 23 billion *US$2.3 million*," Berry said.
The land and forest fires have led to repeated closures of airports and schools.
Walhi said the smoke had also caused around 1 million people to suffer respiratory problems, particularly among young children or the elderly.
In an investigation in Riau, Walhi said it had found a company hiring local people to start fires to clear their land.
"We found an operational manager of a plantation company employing village heads to clear the land. The village heads offered money to local people who then burned the land to get money," he said.
"With such practices, the government would never catch officials from companies red-handed."
A team from the office of the State Minister for the Environment earlier found hot spots spreading in concessions belonging to 77 companies in Riau in the first seven months of this year.
But until now no company has been found guilty.
The Forestry Ministry also claimed that only six of 573 hectares of burned land in West Kalimantan in the first three days of September were located in forests.
It said that 447 hectares of the burned land belonged to the local community with another 120 hectares being plantation areas.
Forest fires are an annual occurrence during the dry season. In 2006, 145,000 hot spots were detected across Indonesia, making it the second-worst fire season since 1997.
The El Nino weather phenomenon is expected to exacerbate the fire problems this year.
Meanwhile, Bambang Hero Saharjo from forest fire laboratory at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture said poor law enforcement remained the main cause of repeated land and forest fires in Indonesia.
"It seems the government would move to tackle the land and forest fires under international pressure. The political will of the government to end the forest fires is still questionable," Bambang said.
Officials were often reluctant to take action if blazes were found on concessions belonging to big companies, Bambang said.
"But if fires are on local people's land officials are very courageous about interrogating them," he said.
Responding to complaints from neighboring countries, the government has warned them to resolve the issue of haze through regional negotiation rather than by raising it at international fora.
In 2006, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was forced to sign a regional apology after neighboring countries protested internationally about the export of Indonesian haze.
On Tuesday, thick haze disrupted forced a temporary closure of Supadio Airport in Pontianak, West Kalimantan.
"Visibility dropped to less than 800 meters. It lasted for half an hour before it got better and we were able to continue operations," airport service chief Syarif Ismulyani Alqadrie said as quoted by tempointeraktif.com.
Haze has been covering areas in Kubu Raya, Pontianak, North Kayong and Ketapang since the beginning of the dry season in July. The airport has often been closed from haze since that time.
The local weather agency said that Tuesday's haze came from 20 hot spots in the province, 10 of which were in Ketapang regency.
Greenpeace renewed its calls for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to prioritize forest protection, to save the forests and help alleviate global warming.