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The fires of Kalimantan

Voice of America - September 4, 1997

The Indonesian government has threatened to expose the names of logging and plantation companies that are lighting fires to clear land on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra. Jenny Grant reports from Jakarta, smoke from the fires is a health hazard affecting neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

State minister of environment Sarwono Kusumaatmadja has accused plantation company bosses of lighting illegal fires like this one in the central Kalimantan town of Palangkaraya.

Mr. Sarwono said plantation owners are threatening public health and trying to shift blame for the smoke and fires onto small-scale farmers.

The minister estimated 20-million people in Indonesia and abroad are facing respiratory problems due to the smoke, which has spread to Singapore and parts of Malaysia. Mr. Sarwono says unless the companies stop clearing land by burning he will expose their names.

Plantation and logging companies, wanting to open up new tracts of land, have burned ground scrub and trees, setting fire to underground peat that smolders for weeks. Many small-scale farmers are subcontracted by the big companies to open up the new land for lucrative palm oil and rubber plantations.

Other farmers, who are poorly informed about the severity of the drought, have also torched their plots believing the dry season will soon end and allow them to plant new crops of rice, corn, cassava, peanuts, and soybeans. climate experts say the drought will not break until late december.

Mr. Sarwono says the fires caused by slash and burn techniques have destroyed 100-thousand hectares of productive land since September.

The Indonesian government has banned the lighting of new fires.

Environment laws provide up to 16-years in jail for lighting illegal fires, but Jakarta has yet to imprison anyone for commercial burning.

Mulyadi – from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, in Central Kalimantan – says the government must do more to control the fires and to respect the environment. he says the plantation owners are to blame for the smoke hanging over the huge island.

Several airports in central Kalimantan and Sumatra have been forced to temporarily close their runways because of poor visibility.

More than two-thousand-500 Indonesian soldiers have been deployed to fight fires around Pontianak in west Kalimantan.

The minister for transmigration, Siswono Yudohusodo, says a lack of coordination between government departments is heightening the smoke crisis.

The fires have not reached 1982 levels, when three-million hectares of land in kalimantan and sumatra were set ablaze, causing an estimated 300-million-dollars damage.