Fires leave Indonesia’s neighbours fuming

Fires leave Indonesia’s neighbours fuming

31 October 2006

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Indonesia — Three years ago, Indonesian farmer Jamaluddin bin Busri bought a patch of forest on Sumatra island and put it to the torch. When the smoke cleared, he planted oil palms, betting prices wouldrise.

Where there’s fire there’s smoke nearby … up the hazy river in Pontianak, Kalimantan

He was right. With palm oil up 20 per cent this year, farmers across Indonesia’s archipelago are following his lead and burning vegetation to prepare for replanting.

They are burning so much that the ash and smoke from the fires have been threatening shipping in the Malacca Strait, the world’s busiest maritime trade route, and closing local airports. The burning has also riled neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, as cities and tourist attractions disappeared beneath the haze.

“It is criminal negligence,” says Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party, who protested to Indonesian diplomats in Kuala Lumpur on October 10. “They have threatened not only the lives of their own citizens, but the lives of innocent civilians in their neighbouring countries.”

Satellite images this month showed at least 378 fires on Sumatra and Borneo, the worst since 1997-1998. Then, the Asian Development Bank estimated the regional cost of lost tourism and extra health-care costs at $US9 billion ($A11.7 billion).

An annual blight, the haze this year has been exacerbated by the El Nino weatherpattern, which delays monsoons. The pattern will continue for six to eightmonths, says the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration in Washington.

Lim is demanding that Indonesia pay compensation for not doing enough to control the smoke surge. Clearing agricultural land by lighting fires was outlawed in Indonesia in 1967.

“Pointing fingers will not do any good,” said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, proposing a regional fund to help prevent fires.

Malaysian clinics reported a 30 per cent increase in respiratory illnesses this month, according to the Health Ministry. In Singapore, air quality was “moderate” to “unhealthy” from October 2-24, when some rain arrived.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Indonesia was risking investor confidence and the credibility of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations.

Indonesia and the Philippines are the only ASEAN countries that have not ratified a 2002 agreement to co-operate in preventing and extinguishing bushfires.

“We appreciate Indonesia is a poor country,” said Lim, 45. “But the least they can do is to seek help from neighbouring countries.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised to his neighbours this month and pledged to “use every existing resource” to fight the fires.

Still, his Government will spend $US217 million promoting fuels made from crops such as oil palm.

“The haze depresses me,” said Amber Lee, 34, who works for an executive search company in Kuala Lumpur. “I feel like a very large elephant is sitting on my chest.”

Airlines and private charter companies this month reported four airport closures in Sumatra and Borneo, which includes two Malaysian states.

Jakarta-based budget carrier PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines lost more than 1 billion rupiah ($A143 million) in October after delaying and rerouting flights, said president director Adam Aditya Suherman.

Smoke in the Malacca Strait, which divides Sumatra from the Malaysian peninsula and is plied by about 600 ships a day, is a danger to trade. “The haze has been much worse this year,” said Hendra Budi, spokesman at state-owned Indonesian port operator PT Pelabuhan Indonesia II. “Last year it only affected airports. This time it has been affecting ports.”

A ship carrying fertiliser collided with five smaller vessels at the southern Sumatran port of Palembang after visibility dropped to less than 10 metres, Hendra said.

Shipping had not been disrupted in Singapore or Malaysia, authorities said. Malaysia’s weather department said visibility remained “hazardous to ships without navigational equipment”.

Indonesia’s peatlands stretch across an area the size of Britain, says Jack Rieley, a geography professor at the University of Nottingham in England. Once lit, the soil can burn for months, releasing gases that produce sulphuric acid.

Authorities have deployed 240 people to fight fires in a province larger than Arizona, says Wilistra Danny, former head of Riau (an Indonesian province) Agency for Natural Resource Conservation. In parts of Kalimantan on Borneo, Governor Agustin Teras

Narang has been offering civil servants a day’s leave to help fight fires.

“As long as Indonesia doesn’t find a way to stop its own people starting these fires, the problem will continue each year,” says Rieley.

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