Indonesia faces financial sanctions as forest fires threaten rare species

Indonesia faces financial sanctions asforest fires threaten rare species

17 October 2006

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Indonesia — Elephant and orangutan reserves are under threat from forestfires in Indonesia that have sent a pall of smoke across much of south-east Asia,prompting health warnings and forcing flight cancellations.

The fires, covering millions of acres, have been burning for weeks,triggering fears of a repeat of the months of choking haze in 1997 that cost theregion billions in economic losses.

Neighbouring nations have called on Indonesia to ratify swiftly a regionaltreaty to fight the fires, and warned that they will delay financial assistanceif it does not.

In Sumatra’s Jambi province yesterday, smoke from more than 100 fires reducedvisibility to less than 50 yards.

In Riau province, Sumatran elephants may be moved out of a national parkafter uncontrolled fires destroyed 247 acres.

Saut Manalu, a senior official at the Tanjung Puting national park on Borneo,where 6,000 orang-utans live, blamed deer hunters for setting many of the fires,which he said were further endangering the under-threat species.

“We can hear them scream at night,” he said. “We are focusingon how to put out the fires. If they go out of control, we will take care of theanimals. We may need to evacuate them.

“In order to lure deer, hunters often set ablaze certain areas so thatfresh grass could grow on the burnt land. Deer would graze there because theylike young leaves.”

Indonesia’s neighbours are increasingly frustrated at Jakarta’s failure totackle the annual dry-season fires.

Singapore, which has suffered from the haze since the start of October, sawits air Pollutants Standards Index climb to an unhealthy 130 yesterday.Malaysia’s foreign minister said a collective fund was needed to battle theproblem.

“We need to have a fund where everybody contributes, because we are allaffected,” he said.

“I don’t think it will be fair for any country like Malaysia [to] spendon our own. It’s too big, it’s too much. The source is in Indonesia.”

Local officials praised the steps taken by environmental ministers fromThailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore to pressure Indonesia to ratify thehaze agreement, but a leading local environmental organisation said it failed toadopt adequate preventive measures.

“It failed to come up with a concrete agenda both in the short and longterm,” said Chalid Muhammad, executive director of the IndonesianEnvironmental Forum.

Indonesia should have proposed emergency laws to empower the government torevoke permits from plantation companies found to be using illegal cut-and-burnmethods, he said.

Malam Sambat Kaban, Indonesia’s forestry minister, said more than 75 per centof the fires were not in government forests, but on plantations and farms ofprivate companies and local people.

He said the Central Kalimantan area was the worst hit, with about 2.5 millionacres of peatland in one area on fire. Peat fires are difficult to extinguishand can burn for months.

Indonesia bans slash-and-burn practices by farmers and plantations, butprosecutions take time and few have stuck.


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