Jakarta. Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar has condemned the hostage situation in Rokan Hulu district, Riau province, which saw employees of her ministry abducted by local residents during an investigation of last year's forest fires.
Seven members of the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry's public order and law enforcement directorate were taken hostage on Friday (02/09) by a group of local residents, allegedly deployed by palm oil plantation company Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL).
Initial investigations by the ministry team showed that a 2,000-hectare area had been burnt by APSL workers, who pretended to be local farmers.
"Most likely, these illegal activities were supported by the company, who employed local farmer groups," Minister Siti said in a statement on Sunday.
The investigators were confronted by a group of more than 100 local residents, who prevented them from leaving the forest area. The group made several demands, including the erasure of all pictures and video footage captured during the investigation.
After series of communications with the ministry's public order and law enforcement director general, the team agreed to erase the files from their digital camera. However, the files taken by a drone camera were not deleted.
The group also demanded that the minister travels to the area before they would release the officials. They did not give any reasons for demanding the minister's presence.
The group even threatened to set fire to their captives and throw their bodies into the river.
At around midnight, local police arrived on the scene to negotiate the officials' release. At around 2.30 a.m. on Saturday, following lengthy discussions, the local residents finally agreed to release the officials, but without their equipment.
Police returned to the scene at Sunday morning to collect the team's equipment.
"Following this incident, the investigations against ASPL will be our priority. We have three important things to address with this company," Siti said. "First, forest area encroachment. Second, forest burning. Third, the hostage situation. The ministry will investigate and take firm action in cooperation with the relevant authorities."
Wildfires have been a recurring problem in Indonesia over the past decade. The 2015 fires, described by observers as the worst on record, have destroyed vegetation on millions of hectares, afflicted more than half a million people with health problems, and resulted in billions of dollars in losses.