Tuesday, November 25, 2003 source: Associated Press
BANGKOK, Thailand An agreement among 10 Southeast Asian nations on preventing harmful forest fires came into force Monday, hailed by the United Nations as a possible global model.
The agreement, signed by the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in June 2002, is the first such regional arrangement in the world to tackle haze pollution from forest fires. The agreement calls for a series of state-backed steps including the use of heat-sensing satellites and a crackdown on arsonists and irresponsible plantation owners.
The agreement could become “a global model for the tackling of transboundary issues,” the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said in a statement.
It quoted UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer as saying that forest fires “spell a double disaster for the environment through their massive release of greenhouse gases and their destruction of biodiversity. I congratulate ASEAN and the governments of Southeast Asia for their foresight and commitment in combating the threats posed by uncontrolled land and forest fires,” he said.
The agreement contains provisions on monitoring, technical cooperation, information exchange, and simplified customs and immigration procedures for emergency response and disaster relief. It also calls for setting up an ASEAN Coordinating Center for activities under the agreement.
About 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of Indonesia’s forests, one of the world’s centers of biodiversity, were destroyed in 1997-98 in fires started mainly on oil palm plantations and agricultural and forestry holdings on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The blazes were fanned by hot, dry conditions caused by the El Niño weather phenomena. More than 20 million people were exposed to breathing extremely high levels of pollutants known to cause both acute and long-term health effects. Airports in Singapore and neighboring countries were closed by thick smog, and total economic losses across the region were estimated at around US$9.3 billion.
In 1998, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Toepfer to coordinate interagency assistance to the ASEAN countries to fight land and forest fires and to develop long-term preventative responses.
Beginning in March 2001 UNEP, in collaboration with the ASEAN secretariat, assisted government negotiators in meetings to develop the terms of the agreement. ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.