Malaysia urges Indonesia to tackle fires that send smog over tourist sites

(Source: ENN, June25, 2004)

Friday, June 25, 2004
By Rohan Sullivan, Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia wants neighboring Indonesia to crack down on farmers who set land-clearing fires that are sending thick smoke over parts of Southeast Asia, threatening health, and fouling the skies of tourist resorts.
This week’s haze is among the worst since 1997-98, when wildfires in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan provinces burned out of control for weeks, destroying 10 million hectares (25 million acres), blanketing Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia with thick smoke and triggering a diplomatic dispute.
Malaysia, which fears its tourism industry is being damaged by the haze, may call for a meeting of Southeast Asian nations to discuss the problem if it gets worse, The Star newspaper on Thursday quoted Deputy Environment Minister S. Sothinathan as saying.
In Indonesia, Vice President Hamzah Haz suggested his government was not responsible for putting the fires out, raising the prospect that haze could again cause friction between the countries.
“Please don’t use the old paradigm in which the central government was always asked to tackle it,” Haz was quoted as saying by state news agency, Antara. Local authorities should be able to cope with the fires, he said.
Forestry Department official Haris Yunanto said a task force has been mobilized to deal fires “in large swathes of plantations and concessions” in Riau province just south of Singapore, but activists said previous government promises to enforce fire bans had little result.
“We keep urging government to apply stern policies, but so far there is no significant solution,” said Ade Fadli from Indonesia’s Environmental Forum.
Malaysia has issued warnings of unhealthy air over some of its cities, including Kuala Lumpur and the historic tourist destinations Penang and Melacca, and warned residents to stay inside.
The brown haze is coming from Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, where the fires have delayed flights and prompted health authorities to hand out masks. Officials in Singapore also have warned of increased air pollution.
Economic losses from the 1997-98 disaster topped US$9.3 billion and prompted a 2002 agreement among six Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to fight fire pollution. This week’s haze has been intense, but so far not as sustained as during the earlier crisis.
Malaysia is complaining that Indonesia has not ratified the agreement and is dragging its heels on preventing the fires, often set illegally by farmers to clear land during the annual dry season.
Malaysia’s call for Indonesia to ratify the accord was reinforced in an editorial Thursday in the government-linked New Straits Times newspaper, which said Indonesia should “demonstrate its goodwill and commitment in combatting haze” to its neighbors.
“The haze has become an unwelcome annual event that should not be happening at all given the time, effort, and resources put in by the affected countries over the past seven years,” the editorial said.
Indonesian Environment Ministry official Sudaryono, who uses only one name, promised ratification of the pact was “just a matter of time.” 


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