Indonesia's costly haze problem

A fireman works to contain a wildfire on a field in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra, Indonesia Image copyright AP
Image caption Indonesian authorities are fighting both physical and political fires over illegal forest clearing that causes a choking haze every year

Flights cancelled, agricultural land destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people around the region suffering from respiratory illnesses.

This is something that has happened pretty much every year - for the last 18 years.

Indonesia's forest fires and the resulting haze have caused havoc and headlines across Asia, which has put the government there under pressure to put the fires out.

That might explain why Indonesian police are on a roll. On Monday they've named another 12 companies as suspects in starting the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

But while Indonesia's police chief Badrodin Haiti was unwilling to tell the BBC who the companies are, he was happy to stress that two of them are from Malaysia and China and that another one under investigation is from Singapore.

Pointing the finger outside of Indonesia can be useful especially at a time when the government there is under pressure to show that's it's serious about stopping the haze.

In an exclusive interview with me last month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said that the haze was a problem that would take a long time to solve.

He said that it might take as long as three years before it was completely under control.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Wildfires caused by illegal land clearing in Indonesias Sumatra and Borneo islands often spread choking haze to neighbouring countries Singapore and Malaysia.

Since then he's changed his tune and has accepted regional assistance after weeks of refusing the offers from his counterparts in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.

The police's announcements that they're clamping down on companies responsible will also no doubt be seen as a sign that Indonesia is trying to be a responsible neighbour.

But environmental activists say that although these companies have been charged with breaking several laws - including Indonesia's environmental law, which carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of $8m - none of that makes a difference unless authorities actually start enforcing the law.

Yuyun Indradi, a political forest campaigner with Greenpeace based in Jakarta told me that out of the 40 or so companies that have been named as suspects for starting the fires so far only one case has ever been brought to court.

He added that if Indonesia really wants to stop the forest fires, it must revoke the permits of companies found guilty.

This is a problem that affects Indonesia every year. But scientists say this year is shaping up to be the worst on record since 1997.

The last time this part of Asia was hit by a major haze crisis it cost the region an estimated $9bn due to losses from cancelled flights, agricultural damage, tourism and healthcare costs.

This time, some economists estimate it could cost the region more than twice that.