Sat, Oct 14, 2006 - Page 5 News List

SE Asia environment ministers meet to deal with smoke haze

AGENCIES , PEKANBARU, INDONESIA

Environment ministers from Singapore, Malaysia and other regional nations affected by smoke haze met yesterday in Indonesia to search for ways to combat an annual problem that disrupts travel and leads to health problems.

The ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei held talks in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau Province, an area of Sumatra island badly affected by the raging fires.

Indonesia's neighbors have become increasingly frustrated over Jakarta's inability to deal with the annual dry season blazes, which in the past few weeks have caused serious air pollution across the region, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore.

"We are asking for assistance in terms of equipment or expertise. We will see what they can offer to us," Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban told reporters.

Kaban said Indonesia expected its neighbors to recognize that the problem was not a simple one to fix.

"That's why we will take them for a field trip on Saturday [today] so that they can see for themselves the situation," he said.

The fires, often started deliberately by farmers or big plantation businesses, have been burning for weeks in parts of Indonesia, creating a choking haze that has made many ill, shut airports and threatened wildlife in protected forests.

Kaban said more than 75 percent of the fires were not in government-controlled forests but in plantations and farms belonging to private companies and local people.

He said that central Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island was the worst hit, with around 1 million hectares of peat land in one area affected. Peat fires are particularly hard to put out and can burn for months.

"This is where most smoke came from," Kaban said.

Outside a hotel where senior officials were meeting to flesh out details for the ministerial meeting, about 20 environmental activists in face masks held a protest over the fires.

"Business people are receiving special treatment from the government while the people here and in neighboring countries are suffering from the haze. This environmental disaster is an embarrassment for Indonesia," Johnny Mundong, head of the environmental group WALHI, told reporters.

Visibility in some areas of Indonesia was cut to 30m last week, forcing cars to use headlights, although there was only a slight haze over Pekanbaru yesterday.

Under pressure from its neighbors, Indonesia said on Thursday it would ratify a Southeast Asian agreement that calls for regional cooperation to deal with the forest fires.

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