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Indonesia expects forest fires for a few more years

Straits Times - August 3, 1997

Susan Sim, Jakarta – The good news is that the Indonesian forest fires this year are not as extensive as those three years ago.

The bad news is that they will be an annual problem for more years yet, despite the best intentions and efforts of the Indonesian government.

"Understand that we are doing our very best to limit the amount of haze being generated. And I think we've been very successful," Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja told The Sunday Times yesterday. His ministry has in the last few years been co-ordinating efforts with the authorities in Singapore and Malaysia to combat the fires, caused in part by the hot season at this time of the year and by burning by farmers and loggers.

This time around, the fires – which he described as bush, and not forest fires – have spread over 9,000 ha of land in central Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The resulting smoke and haze have caused airports in Pekanbaru in the Riau province and Pontianak in West Kalimantan to close their facilities to morning traffic, he said.

He confirmed that these interim closures would continue for as long as visibility in the areas remained low.

But if prolonged, the measures are likely to disrupt commerce in Sumatra, because the Simpang Tiga airport in Pekanbaru, with its visa-free facilities and direct flights to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, is one of the busiest airports in the province.

The minister said, however, that he had not received any report that the haze had also affected operations at Singapore's Changi airport, about 300 km from Pekanbaru. "We're trying our best to make sure that does not happen," he pledged.

Singapore environment officials are due to arrive in Jakarta on Tuesday for discussions on the situation, he added.

In the past, the Republic has provided satellite imagery which showed where the hot-spots were, enabling Indonesia to put those fires out promptly and stop the haze from blanketing the region.

Malaysia too has been giving similar meteorological information, he said, noting that joint action by the three countries had worked well since 1994, when fires across Indonesia caused air quality in the whole region to plummet for several months, prompting widespread health concerns.

Blaming plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra as the "chief culprits" behind the fires, Mr Sarwono said the government was cracking down on them to stop the clearing of land by the burning of bush and trees.

Forestry Minister Jamaludin Suryohadikusumo was also quoted as saying earlier that companies would no longer be allowed to burn unused wood and other materials left over from logging or land-clearing operations.

Jakarta is also trying to persuade traditional "slash-and-burn" farmers to drop the practice, but the relative isolation in the Kalimantan heartland has made it difficult to reach them, Mr Sarwono said.

It would take years to convert all of them to other methods of cultivation, so it is likely that bush and forest fires will still continue to pose a danger to the environment.

And then there is the question about the weather.

The scale of deliberate burning is now lower than three years ago, but the current drought is worse and spontaneous flares cannot be avoided, he noted, lamenting, half in jest: "You cannot regulate the climate. So, if God decides to have a long period of rest, what can we do?"

In the meantime, he called for patience from Singaporeans should the haze worsen. "It's not like putting out fires in Orchard Road. It's a much more complex affair than that," he said, adding:

"Understand that we have a big problem and that it is a very nasty problem for us. So don't over-dramatise it because when it comes to suffering, we're the ones who suffer the most, not you."