Who’s responsible for Indonesia’s fires?

As fires burn across Indonesia as badly as since the disaster of 1997, blanketing parts of the country and its neighbors in a noxious haze, a variety of assertions have been made as to precisely who and what are responsible for the flames, widely used as a tool for clearing land.

Some point the finger at “smallholders,” itself a vague term used to reference a vast ecosystem of landowners ranging from the poor and tiny to the medium-sized, the latter of which can command significant capital.

Others direct their ire at plantation firms. Under Indonesian law, companies bear responsibility for fires that break out in their concessions, whether they started them or not. President Joko Widodo has called for delinquent firms to have their permits revoked, and seven executives were arrested in Riau last week, either for setting fires illegally or for failing to prevent them.

Meanwhile, the Indonesia Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO, has set up complaints posts for people who want to join in on a class action suit against the government, seen as negligent or even complicit in allowing this dry season’s burning to reach such epic proportions.


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