Man-made Fires Choke Air in Indonesia

Man-made Fires Choke Air in Indonesia

23 August 2006

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Malaysia urged Indonesian government to halt burnoffs

Indonesia — You can find hot spots in Singapore or the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur easily enough. Now they are popping up in Indonesia, and not just near Jakarta or other big cities but also in the remote areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan Island.

If a hot spot is near Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, it will quickly show up on the Internet, but hot spots in Sumatra are the larger-scale burnoffs that eventually produce a heavy haze in the metro areas. As the dry season has hit across Indonesia, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the burn areas have increased week by week, now totaling around 250 hot spots, just on Borneo.

Riau, Bengkulu, Jambi, and South Sumatra have been the worst-hit provinces in Sumatra, which annually export their haze to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

The problem is somewhat complicated by the fact that, since the forest cover has been decimated, it remains the bush that has been set afire. Two weeks ago, police seized thousands of logs in one Sumatran province and found tens of thousands of others in Central Kalimantan ready to be floated downstream. These two major instances are dwarfed by the accumulation of years of smaller incidents, for the whole is like an iceberg that’s taken years to reach the sea.

Last year the Malaysian government sent both firefighters and equipment to help the Indonesian side combat the source of the haze that has hit Kuala Lumpur and other cities neighboring Sumatra, requiring residents to don masks. Malaysia’s eastern Sarawak, located on Kalimantan Island, was also hit by thick haze after two Indonesian provinces on Kalimantan started generating haze, which could not be stopped until now.

Regarding the latest pollution problem, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak has urged Indonesia to address the forest fires polluting his territory, after more than 20,000 hectares (77.2 sq. miles) near Riau were fired, nor is there an indication that it would be stopped sooner. “Our ability to resolve the problem will largely depend on the determination of the Indonesian government to address the matter,” Razak said.

The Indonesian government is sending 600 military personnel to help Riau to combat the fires that have reached the Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau. About 2,500 hectares (9.7 sq. miles) of the park have been fired, producing more haze around Riau in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The police also arrested many implicated in the fires and have filed action against the company at the root of the fire problem.

This situation recurs almost every year as nomadic farmers clear new fields for nonirrigated arable crops, but this is also done by agribusiness plantations opening new fields for oil palms. Ironically, the big plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan are mostly owned by Malaysians.

Sumatran cities were covered by a thick smog, interfering with daily activity. The visibility is less than 200 meters (656 feet) in the morning, causing shortness of breath and eye irritation for motorists. People have been requested to use masks when outdoors, but this is not observed because masks just make breathing more difficult. Parents have urged the authorities to send students home.

Air traffic to and from Sumatran cities is still normal but if the smog is not abated in the next few days it will be curtailed because of visibility restrictions.


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