Sun, Oct 15, 2006 - Page 5 News List

SE Asian nations urge Indonesia to sign haze treaty

AP , PEKANBARU, INDONESIA

Indonesian children play soccer yesterday as haze from wildfires blankets the area in Pelelawan, Riau Province, Sumatra.

PHOTO: AP

Southeast Asian nations urged Indonesia to ratify a regional treaty to fight annual brush fires that have sent choking smoke across parts of Malaysia and Singapore, saying only then would it get financial help.

Even as emergency talks were held on Friday, a thick haze from brush fires on Indonesia's Borneo and Sumatra islands continued to disrupt plane flights and trigger health warnings in the neighboring counties.

Environmental ministers from Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore urged Indonesia in a statement released after their daylong meeting "to urgently finalize the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution."

Only then would a regional firefighting fund be discussed, they said.

"Nothing can move forward unless Indonesia ratifies the agreement," said Malaysia's Environment Minister Azmi Khalid. "Details of the fund can only be worked out once the agreement is signed."

Indonesia is the only country in 10-member association that has yet to ratify the agreement, which would result in the establishment of a regional coordinating center capable of reacting quickly to the smoke.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono earlier this week apologized for the haze and a spokesman said on Thursday his country was prepared to sign, but did not provide a timeframe.

Although Indonesia stressed that 300 people have been arrested and lawsuits filed against six companies suspected of using illegal slash-and-burn farming methods, Singapore said it was getting frustrated.

"We do complain," said Singaporean Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim. "I think each country has the right to complain."

Talks were held in the Indonesian town of Pekanbaru on Sumatra Island, one of the areas worst hit by the annual haze that has plagued the region since the 1990s. The fires are mostly set by farmers or companies as a cheap way to clear land for plantations. The peaty soil can smolder for weeks or months.

"We are truly ashamed by this haze, but are unable to fight it alone," Chairul Zainal, head of hard-hit Riau Province's environmental impact agency, told reporters. "It is really disturbing the health of the people and hitting the economy."

Residents of Pekanbaru said the air had improved because of recent rainfall, but many were skeptical the government would be able to solve the problem.

In Malaysia, air quality was in the "moderate" range for most areas on Friday, according to the Meteorological Department. It said rain was expected to bring some relief to most areas in the next week.

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