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  UN FAO website 30 Aug 05
Forest fires for commercial land clearing should stop
Large forest fires in South-East Asia are causing serious environmental damage

Bangkok/Rome - Large forest fires in South-East Asia, notably in Indonesia, have caused serious health and environmental problems, in particular choking haze in the region, FAO said today.

"Most of these fires are intentional and planned by agro-industrial companies to clear forests for agricultural land use," said Mike Jurvelius, FAO forest fire expert. "Using fire to clear forests is prohibited in most of the South-East Asian countries and the ban should urgently be enforced. Instead, tree and vegetation residues should be better utilized, or destroyed mechanically to protect human health and the environment," Jurvelius said.

A cheap way

In South-East Asia, large-scale conversion of forests into agricultural land takes place mainly in flat areas with peat soils, the most productive land for agriculture. Land conversion is usually carried out by removing the trees and then burning the residues; a cheap way to clear land on a large scale.

A particular problem in the region is that large amounts of smoke result from fires burning as much as 20 meters down in the peat soils. These fires are almost impossible to extinguish, regardless of how many airplanes or helicopters are used.

On a single hectare of land, up to 100 000 cubic meters of peat soil can burn. "So long as people do not understand the dangers of using fires for land clearance on peat soils the fight against forest fires will be very costly and have only limited success," Jurvelius added.

Don't burn, use machines

The conversion of forests into agricultural land should follow established environmental practices, FAO said. Instead of burning forest residues, machines could be used for chipping wood and using it for compost, while precious wood could be used for wood products.

Mechanical clearing of forest residues is more expensive but more environmentally-friendly. "There is a high demand for wood in the region; wood should therefore not be wasted or burned," Jurvelius said.

In close collaboration with governments, FAO has started to prepare voluntary guidelines for fire management and the provision of financial resources for forestry agencies.

Regional and sub-regional cooperation agreements on fire management have helped to reduce the impact of fires. In the Eastern and Western Mediterranean region for example, countries have successfully cooperated across national borders in fire fighting. Five countries are currently assisting Portugal in extinguishing huge forest fires.

Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues

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