Derwin Pereira, Indonesia – has rejected blame for the haze blanketing large areas of South-east Asia, saying that one of the culprits is the El Nino climatic phenomenon that no one could have prevented.
The official Antara news agency and the Suara Pembaruan evening daily yesterday quoted Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, Mr Azwar Anas, as saying that the forest fires that set off the haze were linked to the El Nino phenomenon.
He said: "The freak weather phenomenon is partly to blame. We are not late in anticipating the problem. It's a natural disaster which no one could have prevented."
He added that El Nino had also caused other disasters such as typhoons, drought, floods, landslides and hurricane in other parts of the world.
El Nino is a climatic phenomenon which sucks moisture from the western side of the Pacific Ocean, disrupting normal weather patterns and inducing prolonged dry spells.
The Suara Pembaruan also quoted him as saying in Bandung, West Java, that nobody could seek compensation from Indonesia for the haze.
"We cannot be sued," he said. "All experts in the world have said that this catastrophe is not only a natural disaster concerning Indonesia or one resulting from the actions of Indonesians, but it is a global disaster."
He added that Indonesia was willing to accept more foreign offers to help put out the fires.
He said: "Because the cause of the fires is related to El Nino, all countries in Asia and the Pacific region feel obliged to help. It is an international commitment to put out the fires."
Jakarta would accept foreign assistance in accordance with the principle of international solidarity, he said, adding that Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia had made known their intention to help.
His comments came against a background of increasing criticism within and outside the country that the government was not doing enough to tackle the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan which have so far destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forest and caused choking pollution in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.
Ecologists blame the fires on land-clearing practices by plantation and forestry companies, which they believe are responsible for 80 per cent of the fires.
Many of these firms, however, have refused to accept responsibility for the fires, blaming the blazes on small farmers and their traditional slash-and-burn methods.
Lt-General Hendropriyono, President Suharto's Secretary for Control of Development Operations, insisted that plantation clearing had only served as a trigger for the increased temperatures caused by El Nino.
Environment Ministry officials told The Straits Times yesterday that the visibility range in the haze-affected areas was now "way below 100 m" and the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) was "between 300 to 400". Worst hit was Jambi, where visibility now was below 15 m.