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  PlanetArk 16 Oct 06
Haze-Hit Countries Meeting Ends Without Detailed Plan
Story by Ahmad Pathoni

PlanetArk 16 Oct 06
Haze Puts Malaysia's Fireflies, Wildlife at Risk
Story by Clarence Fernandez

KUALA SELANGOR, Malaysia - Malaysia's most famous insects, a colony of fireflies that blink like Christmas lights, top the list of wildlife hit by a thick haze of pollution from Indonesian forest fires.

For many visitors, no trip to Malaysia is complete without a star-lit canoe ride to see the twinkling fireflies near the mouth of the Selangor river, but some residents fear memories could soon be all that remain of the insects.

"At one time the tourists waited for the boats, but now the boatmen wait for the tourists," said Mokhtar, 55, who ferries visitors by canoe each night to glimpse the tree-dwelling fireflies and earns ten ringgit (US$3) per trip. "Tonight I fear I may get only one boatload of visitors."

The haze dampened the light-emitting mating ritual of the fireflies, an attraction that draws thousands of visitors a year to the seaside town, 65 km (40 miles) northwest of the capital and where the Selangor river flows into the Malacca Strait.

"They are the most popular firefly colony in southeast Asia, in terms of accessibility and the impact of their synchronised flashing, so they become an eco-tourism draw," said Andrew Sebastian, of the Malaysian Nature Society, which manages a nature reserve nearby.

But this year the haze discouraged the fireflies -- which are, in fact, beetles -- from twinkling as much as usual, said Mokhtar. "The fireflies were there, but they were less energetic," said the boatman, who gave only one name. "Visitors who were seeing them for the first time did not know what they were missing."

Naturalists said firefly numbers had hit their lowest level in five months, but warned they did not know enough about the factors in the insects' lifecycle to pin the blame on the haze.

"We have noticed a drop in the firefly population," Laurence Kirton, a biologist with the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia, who has been closely monitoring the insects for the last five months, told Reuters.

Kirton, who has spent three years studying the fireflies, did not say how much the figure had dropped, but felt park officials' estimates of about 50 percent were not too far off the mark.

Smoke carried by the smog is an irritant to insects, and carbon dioxide gas given off by fires is toxic, Kirton added. But he could not rule out factors such as a shortage of snails, the food of the young firefly larvae.

"Any insect population may have a cycle of abundance depending on the weather or the availability of food, or other factors, in its lifecycle," he said. Scientists have not yet identified all the influences on the lifecycle of the firefly, a species they call Pteroptyx tener.

The chemicals in the haze could hurt animals and plants as well. Plants rely on insects to reproduce by spreading their pollen grains and insect activity dampened by the haze could delay the pollination of flowering plants, Sebastian said.

The haze would also disrupt the migratory journeys of birds seeking warmer climes as the northern hemisphere winter nears. "Birds coming from as far as Russia, Siberia and Japan are faced with the haze after flying thousands of miles to get here, so we fear for them," Sebastian said. "If they depend on particular landmarks that are hidden by the smoke, they could crash and burn."

At the nature reserve, home to 150 species of birds and innumerable animals, a troop of long-tailed monkeys squabbled over fruitpods and a monitor lizard watched from its hiding-place in a shrub while a kingfisher swooped to the glimmering surface of a lake to seize an insect and fly off. But the impression of normalcy could be misleading.

"Before the haze I used to see the golden-backed woodpecker often, but after the haze began I haven't seen it once," said park official Mohamed Aznizam. "Maybe it's hiding somewhere."

PlanetArk 16 Oct 06
Haze-Hit Countries Meeting Ends Without Detailed Plan
Story by Ahmad Pathoni

PEKANBARU, Indonesia - Southeast Asian nations failed on Friday to agree on a detailed plan to tackle Indonesian forest fires, telling Jakarta it must ratify a smog pact before it could expect large amounts of aid.

Environment and other ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei gathered in Pekanbaru, on Indonesia's Sumatra island, on Friday to discuss the crisis.

Little was agreed and officials instead pledged to hold more talks in the near future.

Indonesia had appealed at the meeting for help to fight the forest and brush fires that have spread smoke over much of Southeast Asia, triggering fears of a repeat of months of choking haze in 1997-98 that cost the region billions in economic losses.

One official estimated the fires raging in parts of Sumatra and Indonesia's part of Borneo island had so far cost the country US$1 billion in economic damage this year.

Indonesia's neighbours are growing increasingly frustrated with Jakarta's failure to tackle the annual dry season fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers as well as timber and oil palm plantation owners.

When the meeting ended on Friday evening, some individual pledges of support had been made, but Jakarta had been told it would have to formally ratify an Association of South East Asian Nations haze treaty before expecting major funding from it.

Regional countries signed the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Indonesia this week pledged to ratify the pact.

Asked at a news conference about implementing the ASEAN haze agreement, Malaysian environment minister Azmi Khalid said, "We don't have that yet because until the agreement is signed, we cannot move forward."

Singaporean environment minister Yaacub Ibrahim said: "If the agreement is signed the fund will be operational. The fund will allow us to do a lot more," referring to provisions in the pact.


Indonesian environment minister Rachmat Witoelar opened the meeting by saying Jakarta recognised that forces of nature and social conditions had severely limited the effectiveness of the government's fire suppression measures and called for ASEAN aid.

As if to underline the haze threat, the meeting in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, is in an area of Sumatra badly affected by the raging fires.

But the minister's appeal failed to win over his neighbours and the joint statement issued at the end lacked mention of specific fresh direct steps, beyond saying "firefighting mechanism(s)" would be upgraded and more effectively used.

It also announced plans for a regional workshop in Indonesia in November that would look into new measures to tackle the haze problem, including seeking international expertise to develop a comprehensive plan of action.

It also called for a ministerial steering committee to oversee implementation. "The formation of the committee and the outcomes of the regional workshop will be submitted to the ASEAN summit in December 2006," the statement added.

ASEAN includes the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in addition to the countries meeting in Pekanbaru.

Malaysia has proposed the five countries at the meeting buy two Russian-built Ilyushin aircraft to scoop up sea water and douse fires, Riau police chief Ito Sumardi told reporters.

Singapore's Ibrahim said it is offering firefighters and a C-130 airplane for cloud seeding, adding: "Everybody should do their part to tackle the problem."

The fires have been burning for weeks, creating the smoke that has made many ill, shut airports and threatened wildlife in protected forests.

Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban said more than 75 percent of the fires were not in government forests but plantations and farms of private companies and local people.

He said Central Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island was the worst hit, with around 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of peat land in one area on fire. Peat fires are particularly hard to put out and can burn for months.

Khairul Zainal, head of the environmental impact control agency in Riau, estimated the cost of the haze at 10 trillion rupiah (US$1.09 billion) for Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Indonesia bans slash-and-burn practices by farmers, timber firms and plantations. But prosecutions take time and few have stuck.

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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