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Fires are unchecked in Indonesia's South Sumatra

Reuters - September 10, 1997

Jim Della-Giacoma, Gelumbang – Dusk comes an hour early each day in this part of Indonesia's Sumatra island as a pall of smoke rising from a patchwork of grass and scrub fires blankets the region and neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.

A Reuters reporter who toured South Sumatra on Tuesday saw a series of uncontrolled scrub fires, some as high as five metres (18 feet), dotted across the province, which is just across the Strait of Malacca from peninsular Malaysia and Singapore.

Both nations have issued health warnings to citizens that the levels of haze pollution are dangerously high. Malaysia has called the pollution a national disaster and launched cloud seeding operations over the capital Kuala Lumpur to induce rain and clear the air.

There was heavy rain overnight in both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and officials said pollution levels appeared to be much lower.

Forest fires on Sumatra and in Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of Borneo island, have contributed to the haze which has hung over the region for some weeks now. Besides pollution, low visibility caused by the haze has closed some Indonesian airports and also affected sea traffic.

Indonesia has said it is taking active measures to control the fires. On Tuesday, President Suharto banned the use of fire to clear land for cultivation, but that message has apparently not seeped down to South Sumatra.

"It's good for farmers as burning the scrub makes the land fertile," Seno, a worker on a watermelon farm near the town of Gelumbang, told Reuters.

"Before, this land was part of a rubber plantation, but a couple of months ago we cut down the rubber trees, burnt them and planted the watermelons," he said as he tendered the 1 1/2 hectare farm owned by a local businessman.

Indonesia's Environmental Impact Management Agency (Bapedal) says those who clear land using fire without permission face a possible 10 year jail sentence or 100 million rupiah ($33,000) fine. But many farmers are unaware of the sanctions.

"The only problem is if I am not careful and burn down somebody else's land. Then the police might come and get me and throw me in jail," Seno said when asked about the legality of what he had done.

Apparently, much care is taken while burning off scrub for land-clearing. Scores of neat black squares of scorched earth can be seen while landing at the airport at Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province.

But other residents said controlling the fires was becoming increasingly difficult because of a prolonged dry spell. And they added that there had been no rain for almost three months in this tropical area.

During a six-hour drive through South Sumatra, many fires could be seen but only at one spot was any effort being made to control the flames.

"I knew from the wind that the fire was coming in the direction of my land and so I've been guarding it day and night," said Iwan, a farmer cultivating a plot of rubber trees and cassava plants outside the village of Lembak, some 70 km (43 miles) south-west of Palembang.

He had enlisted the help of a number of workers from a nearby housing project who brought with them two waterpumps as well as vital manpower to form a fire break to save the trees from serious damage.

"We don't know how this started, but it has been burning to the north for three to four days and we estimated it has already destroyed some 30 hectares of forest." said Gupronudin, one of the construction workers.

But there appeared to be no initiatives taken by local authorities to control the fires.

Only outside Palembang's Sultan Mahmud Badarudin airport have signs been placed along the road saying "It is forbidden to burn this land."

But the signs were apparently put up too late and they are ringed by patches of burnt grass and shrubs, as is the airport runway.

"The mayor has put up those signs, but outside of the city you don't see any such things," one airport worker remarked.