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News 16 Oct 06
Old habits die hard as Indonesia haze crisis persists
By Ahmad Pathoni
LANGGAM, Indonesia (Reuters) - Armed with buckets and a newly installed electric pump powered by a portable generator, Iwan Marwan and five others struggle to put out embers on a smoldering two-hectare field in Indonesia's Sumatra island.
The men say they don't know who started the fire but they believe it was not intentionally lit. "I'm helping them put out the fire to prevent it from spreading to my family's plantation," says Marwan as he pours a bucket of water on a smoky ember. "We know it is illegal to use fires to open land. Maybe someone threw a cigarette butt. During a dry season like now peat land is easy to burn," the 32-year-old tells Reuters.
Others in the field surrounded by palm oil plantations decline to answer most questions but one says the land belongs to a military officer who lives in the provincial capital Pekanbaru, a three-hour drive away over a rough road. "The owner is taking a military course in Jakarta," says the man, who declines to give his name.
The Langgam blaze for which no one claims responsibility highlights the difficulty in tackling annual forest and brush fires on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo which produce thick smoke choking widespread areas of Southeast Asia.
Farmers in those regions traditionally use fires to convert land into plantations cheaply and it is unlikely the fire Marwan and the others tried to put out was accidental.
Smoldering swathes of forest land with blackened tree stubs dot the area, in Pelalawan region of Sumatra's Riau province. Haze from the Sumatra and Borneo fires blanketed neighboring Malaysia and Singapore in past weeks, sending air quality to unhealthy levels and disrupting flights and sea navigation.
"Unless action is taken against the offenders, mainly large plantation and timber companies, we will continue to choke on haze in the coming years," Hapsoro, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia. tells Reuters.
But Riau police chief Ito Sumardi says fires and haze have significantly decreased in Riau thanks to firm law enforcement. Cheap slash-and-burn practices are a local custom difficult to eradicate but adoption of the method by large plantation companies had exacerbated the situation, he says.
"Large plantation companies are taking advantage of an ancestral practice to open land cheaply and efficiently," Sumardi tells Reuters. He says companies often pay locals to do the clearing and later evade responsibility for fires by claiming their land had been encroached upon.
Law enforcement has been hampered by lack of funds and difficulty in gathering evidence, he adds.
"We are overwhelmed by detainees. Now we detain more land-clearing suspects than other criminals," Sumardi says, adding that so far 70 people in Riau have been prosecuted on charges of starting fires.
One way to reduce slash and burn practices is by preventing burned land from being used pending a court verdict, he suggests. But there were no signs that the smoking fields in Pelalawan had been impounded.
Indonesia's neighbors, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, are increasingly frustrated with Jakarta's failure to prevent or extinguish the annual dry season fires.
Environment ministers from the three countries as well as Thailand and Brunei gathered in Pekanbaru last Friday to discuss ways to end the crisis but failed to agree on a detailed plan.
A proposed special regional fund to deal with the haze could not be operational unless Indonesia ratified a 2002 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) haze treaty, ministers said.
Indonesia has pledged to ratify the pact but it is still being studied by parliament.
Jakarta has argued extreme weather and poverty severely limit the effectiveness of government efforts to curb the fires. Officials also say many fires are on peat land, resulting in thick smoke and making it harder to extinguish them.
Khairul Zainal, head of the environmental impact control agency in Riau, estimates the cost of the haze at 10 trillion rupiah ($1.09 billion) for affected Indonesian regions.
Not far from Langgam village, plantation worker Suyanto says the return of the haze this year has made him unhealthy. "I have just recovered from a cough. Now it looks like I'm sick again," he says while having lunch with his co-workers in a wooden house in the middle of a palm oil plantation. "This morning it was very dark. I couldn't see far enough," he said.
Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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