[Documents menu] Documents menu

Message-ID: <199802140141.UAA21683@access2.digex.net>
Date: Fri, 13 Feb 1998 20:41:01 -0500
Reply-To: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@msu.edu>
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@msu.edu>
From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@ACCESS.DIGEX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: Crisis Prompts Fears of New Smoke Pollution (WashPost)
To: Multiple recipients of list SEASIA-L <SEASIA-L@msu.edu>

X-URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/1998-02/13/027r-021398-= idx.html

Indonesian Crisis Prompts Fears of New Smoke Pollution

By Michael Richardson, International Herald Tribune
Friday 13 February 1998; Page A31

SINGAPORE, Feb. 12&#151;With the Indonesian government short of money and preoccupied with an economic crisis that threatens to lead to serious social unrest, concern is growing in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia that the region will again be smothered in smoke pollution from uncontrolled forest fires in Indonesia.

Last year, such fires caused widespread health problems, disrupted air and sea traffic, and hit Southeast Asia's multibillion-dollar tourist industry.

Scientists and weather experts warned today that if the fires continued to gain a strong foothold in Indonesian Kalimantan and Sumatra, then Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the Philippines could see a repeat of the pollution that blotted out the sun for days at a time in the worst-affected areas between last August and November and prompted many tourists to cancel their vacation plans.

This would be a major blow for a region already battered by a currency and banking crisis, and now facing the specter of rising unemployment and inflation as economic growth slows sharply, economists said.

Indonesian officials said in Jakarta today that satellite photographs showed more than 90 hot spot areas -- up from 23 last week -- that were affected by new or resurgent fires in parts of Kalimantan and Borneo, which have been gripped by one of the worst droughts in living memory.

We could certainly be in for a repeat of last year if the fires keep burning, said Steve Tamplin, regional adviser on environmental health in the World Health Organization office in Manila. Firefighters couldn't do very much to contain the fires once they got started.

This is because in East Kalimantan Province on the island of Borneo, where most of the fires are blazing, there are vast dried-out peat and coal seams close to the surface. Once they catch fire, they are very difficult to put out. They also release poisonous sulfur and nitrogen pollutants into the atmosphere along with heavy smoke.

Soetarso, a senior official at the Coordinating Board for National Disaster Management in Jakarta, said recently that the Indonesian government hoped the fires would not spread smoke to other countries. We might not have the money to fight the fire because of our economic problems, he added.

Such comments and the apparent inability of Indonesian authorities to control the fires, despite an official ban on burning and evidence that most are deliberately set by plantation companies or farmers to clear land for development, are causing concern in neighboring countries that have to bear the consequences.

Malaysia is especially worried because it will host the Commonwealth Games in September, the month in which the air pollution was at its unhealthiest in 1997, and there are fears that noxious smog caused by the Indonesian fires could deter athletes from competing.

Singapore also has health and economic concerns. Environment and Health Minister Yeo Cheow Tong said recently that the government is keeping a close watch on the situation and helping to alert the Indonesian authorities to new fires using satellite pictures.

What we would like to do is to understand from them their capabilities at the present moment for fighting those fires, he said.

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia agreed on a joint action plan in December to prevent a recurrence of the smoke pollution, under which Jakarta agreed to improve its fire-fighting capabilities.

The International Monetary Fund's managing director, Michel Camdessus, said recently that Indonesia was unable to use its special, off-budget Reforestation Fund to help cope with the fires last year because the money had been earmarked for a car project.

Speaking to a business forum in Paris, Camdessus cited this case as an example of the lack of transparency in national financing that had contributed to the Asian financial crisis by masking the extent of problems in several countries.

Little is known about this extra-budgetary Reforestation Fund, but it contains billions of dollars drawn from timber taxes, said Gerry van Klinken, editor of Inside Indonesia, a magazine published from Melbourne, Australia. Administered via presidential decree, it has long been a convenient fund for many other purposes beyond restoring forest cover.

He said that it mostly has been used to provide low-interest loans to commercial timber plantation companies, which have replanted cut forests with quick-growing pine or acacia trees for pulp factories.

Indonesian environmentalists and some officials blame plantation companies, many with close connections to the government, for starting most of the fires because they are the cheapest and quickest way of clearing forest and scrub land for commercial development.