Harvard and Columbia university research showing smoke from land fires in Southeast Asia led to more than 100,000 premature deaths last year "makes no sense at all," an official at Indonesia's Health Ministry said on Tuesday.
Indonesian government records show only 24 deaths related to forest fires in 2015, but the disaster was estimated to have left more than half a million Indonesians suffering from respiratory ailments.
Indonesia is under global pressure to put an end to slash-and-burn land clearances for palm and pulp plantations which send clouds of toxic smoke over the region each year.
Police and a fire fighter from a local forestry company try to extinguish a forest fire in the village in Rokan Hulu regency, Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia August 28, 2016 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken August 28, 2016. Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman/via Reuters
The university research estimates pollution exposure from last year's fires killed 91,600 people in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore in 2015 and 2016, significantly higher than government records.
"Given the severe haze in Equatorial Asia in 2015, the 100,000 premature deaths in that region are not so surprising," said Loretta Mickley, a senior researcher at Harvard focusing on atmospheric pollution, who contributed to the research.
Health Ministry director general of disease prevention and control Mohamad Subuh told Reuters the research data was wrong.
"Data on deaths is clear. We have surveillance," Subuh said, adding that the assumptions of mortality based on mathematical calculations were "irresponsible".
Every year, Indonesia faces criticism from its neighbors Singapore and Malaysia over the smog, euphemistically known as "haze", and its failure to stop the fires from being lit.
Last year's fires were among the worst in the region's history, with billions of dollars worth of environmental damage, weeks of flight and school disruptions and thousands suffering from respiratory disease.
Buildings are shrouded by haze in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia August 28, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Edgar Su
People take photos near the Singapore Flyer observatory wheel shrouded by haze August 26, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Edgar Su
Environment team threatened with death investigating haze
The ministry said a group of up to 100 men detained seven investigators for about 12 hours on the weekend and threatened to burn them alive and dump their bodies in a river at an oil palm plantation in Rokan Hulu, Riau province.
The incident illustrates the difficulties Indonesia faces tackling the illegal burning of vegetation to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations that causes clouds of smoke every dry season, which at times blanket the region, raising fears for public health and air travel.
The team was following up on satellite images showing "hot spots", or suspected fires, in a concession of PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) oil palm plantation company.
There were "strong indications" the mob was deployed by the company, the ministry said in a statement.
"With this incident, the investigation of PT APSL will become our top priority," Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya said in the statement, referring to both suspected forest encroachment by the company and the detention of the team.
"The environment ministry will investigate this and take strict action in accordance with the law," she said.
A company official, contacted by Reuters on Monday, declined to comment.
The team was released only after lengthy negotiations involving police and after they agreed to delete photographic evidence and to leave behind two vehicles and equipment. The equipment and vehicles were recovered the next day.
The investigators, however, managed to retrieve video footage shot by a drone showing thousands of hectares of forest had been burned illegally in and around the APSL concession.
"As far as the eye can see, an area that was once peatland has been converted into oil palm plantation," Nurbaya said.
Plantation companies drain swampy peatland before planting their crops and the dried-out peat is particularly flammable and often catches fire when companies set fires to clear vegetation.
More than 450 individuals have been arrested in connection with land and forest fires this year.
Under Indonesian law, companies found guilty of clearing land by burning can be fined up to 10 billion rupiah ($735,000), and the management faces up to 10 years in jail. Companies that fail to control fires started elsewhere but which spread into their concession land also face punishment.