Indonesia — Indonesia pledged on Thursday to reduce forest fires by upto half this year, as Southeast Asian environment ministers met on Sumatraisland to discuss ways to stop smoke billowing across their region. The “haze”from fires on Sumatra and Borneo islands spread across large areas of SoutheastAsia for months last year, polluting skies and frustrating Indonesia’sneighbours.
“Our target is to reduce them by 40-50 percent. We may never be able to eradicateforest fires completely,” Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelartold Reuters by telephone after meeting counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia,Brunei and Thailand in Sumatra’s Jambi province.
“Forest fires also happen in Hollywood, Malibu in the United States and inSydney, it’s a natural phenomenon. We have to be realistic. What we can do isprevent the repeat of last year’s scale,” Witoelar said.
Most of the fires are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and plantationcompanies, many of which are owned by Malaysian and Singapore firms. Indonesia’sweather agency has predicted that the dry season on parts of Sumatra and theIndonesian portion of Borneo will start in June.
Witoelar said that at the meeting the ministers agreed on an action plan whichincluded teaching farmers to avoid slash-and-burn practices and provide them with farming equipment. Indonesia has earmarked 700 billion rupiah($78 million) for this year’s efforts, he said. Singapore had submitted toIndonesia a masterplan that covered fire prevention and suppression, legislationand enforcement as well as regional and international cooperation to fight haze,he added.
Indonesia and Malaysia were also cooperating in training personnel, fireprevention, peatland management and public education as part of efforts totackle the fires. A statement issued at the end of the meeting said Indonesia’sefforts since the start of ther year had reduced the number of hotspotsindicating potential forest fires by 58 percent from the previous year. Theministers “recognise the urgency and importance of regional preparedness totackle land and forest fires and transboundary haze pollution in the coming dryseason,” the statement said. Southeast countries have in previous yearsheld a series of meetings to try to tackle haze, although they have appearedpowerless when the fires flare up.
According to Greenpeace, Indonesia had the fastest pace of deforestation in theworld between 2000-2005, with an area of forest equivalent to 300 soccer pitchesdestroyed every hour. Indonesia has lost 72 percent of its intact ancientforests and half of what remains is threatened by logging, forest fires andclearances for palm oil plantations, Greenpeace said. A report sponsored by theWorld Bank and Britain’s development arm released in June said Indonesia wasamong the world’s top three greenhouse gas emitters because of deforestation,peatland degradation and forest fires. ($1=8920 Rupiah)