Indonesia has said the choking haze that annually blankets parts of Southeast Asia will be reduced this year as it cracks down on oil palmplantations that clear land by burning.
Indonesia’s Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono said authorities would enforce a 2004 law that imposes stiff penalties on plantations that burnland, a practice largely blamed for contributing to the haze.
“We believe that this year we can reduce the problem of haze because the commitment is there,” Apriyantono told AFP in a weekend interview at theconclusion of a three-day visit here. “We will enforce this and we will apply our role,” he said. “The sanction for burning is very high so webelieve this act can be effective.”
The law imposes a maximum 10-year jail term and 10 billion rupiah (1.08 million dollars) in fines on plantations that defy theregulation.
Haze caused by burning in Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia to make way for crops is an annual problem that afflicts countries in the regionincluding Singapore and Thailand. The worst-ever bout, in 1997 and 1998, cost the region an estimated 9.0 billion dollars in damage by disruptingair travel and other business activities.
Last year, haze from fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra island hit Kuala Lumpur and towns in Malaysia’s north and its west coast, as well as parts ofThailand. The pall of smoke and dust triggered a state of emergency in two Malaysian coastal towns and crisis talks between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Apriyantono said authorities also had to contend with ordinary Indonesians who traditionally raze land to make way for crops, but that plantations hadcommitted themselves to stop the burning. “They are ready to follow through and we will also provide the technologyto plant without burning,” he said.
The minister, who signed a pact with Malaysia during his visit to boost thecountries’ palm oil, cocoa and pepper sectors, also said both nations were planning a campaign to counter what they say are negative perceptions aboutpalm oil.
Conservationists say that plantations, besides being blamed for the regionalhaze, are permanently destroying habitats for animals such as endangeredorangutans, while health fears persist over palm oil as a food ingredient.
“We would like to do a campaign about palm oil,” said Apriyantono, who disputed the charges. “This is something that is totally wrong about thenegative campaign, about destroying the forests and orangutans and that it’s dangerous for health,” he said.