August 9, 2006
Indonesian Forest Fires Flare, Region Holds Breath
By Ed Davies
JAKARTA -- Choking smoke from Indonesian forest fires marks the return of an annual hazard across the region which authorities appear powerless to stop and that only one thing can be relied upon to contain -- rain.
The fires are a regular occurrence during the dry season in areas such as Sumatra and Borneo, but the situation has worsened in the last decade, with timber and plantation firms often blamed for deliberately starting fires to clear land.
Indonesian authorities have vowed to take action against anyone setting fires and taken a series of other measures. But the burning and the billowing yellow smoke persist and, officials concede, the seasonal fires could go on for years.
"Whenever there is land clearing, there is a possibility of sustained fires," said Hermono Sigit, deputy assistant for forest and land destruction at the Environment Ministry.
The worst smog hit in 1997-98, when drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon led to major Indonesian fires. The smoke spread to Singapore, Malaysia and south Thailand and cost $9 billion in damage to tourism, transport and farming.
Nearly 10 years on, the acrid odor of the smoke, or haze as it's known in the region, could be smelt this week in Singapore, while the landmark KL Tower in the Malaysian capital was also shrouded in smoke this week before recent rain.
"We are ever ready. It's a recurring problem because there are known hotspots in Sumatra," said Rosnani Ibrahim, Malaysia's environment director-general.
There is concern a return of the smoke could turn away foreign tourists, mainly Gulf Arabs who flock to Malaysia to avoid blistering summer heat at home.
Smoke from Sumatra shrouded southern Thailand for several days last month, the government-run Thai news agency said.
In some areas, such as Hat Yai, gauze face masks were issued to children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions.
LEGAL PROCESS HAZY
Galvanized by the 1997-98 fires, Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, but Indonesia has yet to ratify the pact.
It is illegal to carry out slash-and-burn land clearing in Indonesia, but prosecutions take time and few have stuck.
Local sources also point to limited government budgets and difficulty enforcing national policy locally. More power has been given to provinces since the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998.
"We have urged for class action suits, but the government response has been very slow hitting bad companies hard," said Desmiwati, deputy director of the Riau branch of WALHI, a pooling of local environmental groups.
Riau on Sumatra island is one of the worst affected areas.
Arbaeni, a senior official at the environmental supervisory agency in Riau, said authorities were trying to educate locals against starting fires to clear land and said burned land would be held in a "status quo" in order to investigate ownership.
Nazir Foead of WWF Indonesia, a conservation group, said bigger, high-profile plantation and timber firms were now far less likely to set fires, but unresolved land tenure disputes could mean others started fires on their land.
He estimated that in Riau alone, at one point last year, 7.5 fires broke out every hour.
"The government sends troops on the ground but can fight only a few percentage of these numbers," Foead said
According to satellite data from environmental group, Eyes on the Forest, in Riau last month there were 1,419 hot spots.
About a quarter were in timber plantation concessions and 21 percent in palm oil areas, with the rest in community areas.
BURNING PEAT A KEY RISK
A particular concern among environmentalists is an increasing trend toward converting peatland forests.
Once these areas are drained peat soil is highly flammable, producing more smoke and carbon emissions than other soil types.
"Any fire will take almost impossible efforts to put out," said WWF's Foead, noting the peat could be 10 meters (33 feet) thick.
A group of NGOs, including WWF, issued a joint statement this week urging Indonesia to stop allowing conversion and land clearing on peatlands.
But for now, weather may be the best hope to stop new fires.
"We pray to God that the rain falls down on earth," Foaed said.
(Additional reporting by Diyan Jari in Jakarta, Ed Cropley in Bangkok and Jalil Hamid in Kuala Lumpur)