August 11, 2005

Dangerous haze returns to haunt Southeast Asia

By Achmad Sukarsono and Jerry Norton

JAKARTA (Reuters) - If rhetoric could douse fires, the haze
that haunts Southeast Asia, endangering health, travel and
tourism, would have disappeared in the late 1990s.

Thick smoke from major fires on Sumatra and Borneo islands
in 1997 and 1998 spread to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand,
making thousands sick and costing regional economies $9 billion
in damage to farming, transport and tourism.

Governments and environmental groups agreed something must
be done. Speeches were made, international conferences called
and proposals put forth to bring the situation under control.

But those came just as Southeast Asia was hit by an
economic crisis, leaving limited will or resources to fight the
fires or their root causes, especially when smoke levels fell
anyway in the next few years.

This month the price of procrastination is being paid in
peninsular Malaysia, much of which has been shrouded in thick
smog. Asthma attacks have soared, tourists are holing up in
their hotels, and some schools, ports and airports have closed.

The haze comes from burning by farmers, plantation owners,
loggers and miners to clear land, mostly on Indonesia's Sumatra
and on Borneo -- split among Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

The effects vary dramatically from year to year depending
on winds and the severity and length of the dry seasons.

"The dry season this year has made the fire spread more,"
Yuri Thamrin, a spokesman at the Indonesian foreign affairs
ministry, said on Thursday.

"Hotspots" is a term for the fires that reflects the use of
satellites to locate them through the heat they generate.

While modern technology may make the fires easy to find,
getting to them can be something else in sprawling Indonesia.
There can be hundreds of fires at a given time, many far from
major cities in terrain difficult to reach with heavy

The bulk of the fires seriously affecting Malaysia this
month are in the swampy, remote regency of Rokan Hilir on
Sumatra's east coast around 100 kilometers (62 miles) from


"The fire is happening in large areas. Firefighters have
been trying to extinguish the fires but there are only 70
(firefighters) and that is far from enough," Hujito Susiswo,
head of the environmental impact office in Rokan Hilir, told

Seams of peat and coal add to the difficulties, often
smoldering for months.

Asked why the government cannot simply halt slash-and-burn
practices behind the fires, Susiswo said: "That is how people
farm here for ages. It's difficult to stop."

Environmentalists and analysts say small farmers are often
less of a factor than corporate-run plantations and other
commercial operators.

"Burning the forest is the easiest and cheapest way to
clear land used for plantations and to fertilize them ...
People who burn the forest are workers paid by plantation
owners," Farah Sofa, a director at Indonesia's leading
environmentalist group Walhi, told Reuters.

While most burning is illegal, enforcing the law is
difficult in a country of 220 million people with a poorly paid
and relatively small police force and a culture of corruption.

"The law enforcement against cases is not serious enough.
NGOs will report hotspots at land owned by company A, B, C, but
there are uncertain follow-ups," said Nazir Foead, a director
at the Indonesian operation of the conservation group WWF

Some analysts say Indonesia's neighbors bear part of the
responsibility, and should help Jakarta finance the major law
enforcement and firefighting effort needed to combat the

They say Singapore and Malaysian owned plantation and
logging operations are among those doing the burning, with
executives and governments in the home countries turning a
blind eye.

But a Malaysian plantation industry official said she had
no knowledge of any burning conducted by Malaysian firms
operating in Indonesia.

"Most of us have a zero-burning policy anyway," said the
official, who declined to be identified. (Additional reporting
by Ade Rina and Telly Nathalia in Jakarta)