Kuala Lumpur (ANTARA News) – Indonesia’s neighbours on Thursday urged it to curb the region’s annual haze crisis by cracking down on forest fires, warning that the choking pollution is hurting economies and deterring tourists.
Smoke from fires raging on the jungle-covered Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo has worsened this week, casting a pall over neighbouring Malaysia.
Singapore and Thailand have also been affected in previous years.
As Malaysian business groups complained about the impact on the economy, the country’s outspoken trade minister Rafidah Aziz said tough action was needed to resolve the recurring issue.
“We have to contend that this is something that will happen unless real serious efforts are being put by the governments where the haze originates,” she told reporters at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) talks.
Rafidah said open burning must be contained as it was hurting members of the bloc including Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand.
“It is impacting on the region,” she warned. “Of course for ASEAN as a whole, it is a deterrent to tourists and travellers. The haze is happening for years now.
“When the haze comes from the neighbouring country, then the country must attempt to enforce to fight the forest fires,” she said.
Syed Amin AlJeffri, co-chairman of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council, said the haze, which in recent days has enveloped Kuala Lumpur, was hurting retail business in Malaysia.
“Haze of course is not good for health. So tourists are keeping off the streets. This is bad for retail business,” he told AFP.
Air quality has worsened in peninsular Malaysia in recent days, nearing unhealthy levels and obscuring views of the capital’s iconic Petronas Twin Towers which is next to the ASEAN talks venue.
Last August a state of emergency was declared in two locations on Malaysia’s west coast when the haze sent pollution levels soaring to extremely hazardous levels.
Indonesia trying hard
Indonesia’s Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu defended her country’s efforts to tackle open burning on plantations.
“We try hard to stop the illegal fires,” she told reporters late Wednesday.
Indonesia has said it will deploy hundreds of police and troops to fight fires raging on Sumatra island.
ASEAN secretary general Ong Keng Yong, said the bloc had a policy on zero burning but enforcement was crucial.
“The most important thing is we must have enforcement,” he said.
The Indonesian government has outlawed the use of fire for land clearing but weak enforcement means the ban is largely ignored.
In 1997-98 the region’s worst-ever haze crisis cost it some 9.0 billion dollars by disrupting air travel, tourism and other business.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. (*)