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  Straits Times 20 Oct 06
Malaysian Minister: Oil palm firms the main culprit
by Leslie Lau

IN KUALA LUMPUR - IT WAS clear that the haze was caused mainly by land-clearing for oil palm plantations, said Malaysia's Environment Minister Azmi Khalid yesterday.

But he did not point the finger at Malaysian plantation companies. Instead, he chose to repeat what the government had said previously - that it was up to Jakarta to take action.

'I do not believe the haze is caused only by forest fires. Before 1994, before land was cleared for oil palm plantations, we did not experience any haze even though there were forest fires,' Datuk Seri Azmi said. 'Open burning for land-clearing is the cause of the haze. In Kalimantan alone, there are now one million hectares of palm oil plantations.'

Indonesian officials announced this week that they are investigating 16 companies and private land-owners in connection with fires. Most of the companies under investigation are in Sumatra's Riau province and on Kalimantan.

Jakarta says two of the companies being investigated are controlled by stakeholders in Singapore. It is unclear if any Malaysian company is among those under probe.

The Malaysian government is still pushing for an Asean fund to be set up to fight fires and prevent future occurrences of the haze.

Datuk Seri Azmi said yesterday that he would table a motion to set up the fund at a special Asean meeting on the haze in the Philippines next month. 'I will table Malaysia's proposal at the meeting as we discuss what kind of mechanisms can be used to fight the haze,' he said.

The minister said the special Asean meeting would include discussions of how such a fund can be managed. Malaysia, he said, was prepared to contribute to the fund, but he did not disclose how much the country was prepared to commit.

'The cost of bringing the haze under control is very high. This is because the effective way of dealing with the problem is to use special aircraft to help douse the flames,' he said. It is believed that the fund will finance measures such as cloud-seeding operations to induce rain and acquiring special firefighting aircraft.

Datuk Seri Azmi said it was necessary for Asean countries to jointly bear the cost of putting out the flames as Indonesia appeared to be unable to do it alone.

On what countries affected by the smoke from Indonesia could do, he said: 'There is not much that can be done - except hope for rain and wind to blow away the haze.'

Wind direction and monsoon rain have been cited as reasons for the improvement in the air quality in many parts of Malaysia. The wind direction changed early this week from south-westerly to south-easterly, shifting the smoke towards the southern states in the peninsula.
This left Kuala Lumpur and the central states with moderate air quality for a while. But Kuala Lumpur again recorded unhealthy air quality yesterday, with an Air Pollutant Index (API) reading of 101. An API reading of between 101 and 200 is classified as unhealthy.

Johor Baru registered a reading of 100. The air quality in other parts of the country, however, was below 100.

A Meteorological Department official said the inter-monsoon season began a few days ago, helping to bring scattered rain and isolated thunderstorms in the early morning and late afternoons to the peninsula's west coast. He said even heavier rain is expected by the end of the month, when the north-east monsoon season begins.

Over the past few days, there was rain in Kuala Lumpur and many cities on the west coast of the peninsula. Though this has improved the air quality, the haze is still present.

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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