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  Bernama 20 Oct 06
Haze Creates Regional Human-Environment Crisis
By Amrizan Madian

PALANGKARAYA, Oct 20 (Bernama) -- The unhealthy air quality due to the haze caused by forest fires in Kalimantan since last August has indeed caused breathing difficulties and sore eyes to many.

The suffocating smell of smoke, sore throat and eyes got worse when this reporter and a photographer stepped foot in central Kalimantan, forcing them to put on face masks.

Throughout the 200-kilometre journey from Banjarmasin to Palangkaraya, what could be seen of the forests on both sides of the road was a landscape of blackish soil with smoke still billowing from the ground in some areas and of withering trees and plants. The area was foggy and dusty as the air was filled with flying ashes and other particles.

From afar, while passing villages along the way, women were seen burning heaps of dried leaves in their lawns while the men were chopping down half-burnt trees and gathering twigs and branches.

By the look of it, the people were oblivious of the haze. They did not seem to be affected by or were concerned with the unhealthy air surrounding them. Perhaps, it is because they are used to such a situation.

"It is normal for us to burn forests to clear land for farming," said Agie Suwajo to Bernama when met at a village in Pulang Pisau here. He said the haze was a normal phenomenon from burning activities and forest fires, especially in the peat soil area.

Although the Indonesian government prohibits such activities, Agie said the villagers could not adhere to the regulation because they needed land to carry out farming.

"If we do not burn the forest, where are we going to get our food from?" he added. He said he had been burning the forest for land to carry out farming activities for many years but had never been reprimanded by the authorities for doing so.

"If indeed the government wants to enforce the law prohibiting the people from burning the forests, then millions of farmers in Indonesia will be penalised," he added.

While many said it was normal for them to carry out open burning for land clearing, they were beginning to realise the effects of their actions and the harm brought by the haze. More so, when they have been engulfed in haze for almost four months and there is now sign of the situation getting better if the rain comes as forecast, in November.

Herman Jokardi, a labourer in Palangkaraya, is concerned with the long-term effects of the haze, especially on the health of children and the elderly. "It is normal for us to have haze but if it is every year that we breathe unhealthy air, it will be hazardous," he said.

With the haze affecting several countries in Southeast Asia since the last few years, five countries -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand -- sat together to find ways to address the problem.

This led to the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to ratify the problem. Unfortunately, Indonesia, which is the source of the haze problem and despite pledging its commitment to fight it, is the only country of the five which has yet to sign the agreement.

For the past 10 years, especially between July and October each year, which is the hot season in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia's neighbouring countries have been forced to endure the haze caused by burning activities on the two main Indonesian islands.

Some countries, unhappy with the way Indonesia is handling the situation, have criticised it and this drew the ire of the Indonesian press which said that it was from their forests that Indonesia's neighbours were able to have clean air and oxygen.

Last week, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised for the haze problem in Malaysia and Singapore but on Oct 16, the president's representative, Jusof Kalla, wanted Malaysia and Singapore to be fair to Indonesia.

A local newspaper quoted Kalla as saying that Malaysia and Singapore should help Jakarta because the two countries had benefited from the clean air "imported" from Indonesia. This statement clearly indicates that Indonesia is defending its rights but seems not to care about the effects of its forest fires on the people in neighbouring countries. -- BERNAMA

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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