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  PlanetArk 5 Dec 06
Indonesia Aims to Contain Forest Fires in a Few Years

Yahoo News 4 Dec
Indonesia hopes to see haze lift within two years

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia hopes to see a major improvement in the annual problem of choking haze within the next two years after introducing tough new methods to tackle the problem, Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar has said.

Witoelar said Monday police could now seize land hit by suspicious fires and the ministry would also work to raise the water levels in peat areas to reduce the chance of blazes.

Indonesian farmers burn forests and shrubland annually to clear land for agriculture, causing a choking haze that spreads across Southeast Asia during the dry season, affecting tourism and health in the region.

Witoelar said police would confiscate any land which was burned and would prevent plantation owners from illegally expanding their holdings.

"The government has created an initiative where we will now hold responsible any plantation owners where there is fire, whether they started it or not," he told a Jakarta Foreign Correspondents' Club lunch.

"If there are any burnings and we cannot get to the bottom of it, we will confiscate the land and put a police line there and that cannot be cultivated. So there will be no motive for anyone to consciously burn the land," he said.

He said the "policy has yielded results" since it was introduced in August, pointing to Riau province, opposite Singapore, where "the hotspots have been reduced very drastically" even before the start of the rainy season.

"We are taking hostage any area that has been burnt in our efforts to find out who did it. If it cannot be proven conclusively, we will hold it hostage because then we will dare the owners to sue me if we are not right," the minister said.

Deep-seated peat fires could not be tackled by aerial spraying, so the ministry was planning to damn irrigation channels and ditches to raise the water levels in affected areas so the peat would not burn so readily.

"We expect to have a decrease of 30 to 40 percent of happenings (fires started) there, which I think will cut down on the total size of the burnings we've experienced in previous years," he said.

Despite the new measures, the minister, who took office in 2004, said he would need another two years to tackle a problem, which dates back 30 years.

"To stop a running train after 30 years in four years I think is reasonable," he said. "I beg for time because this problem is so difficult, it took 20 to 30 years (to develop). Every year it happens all over again. It happened last year, it happened this year, it will probably also happen next year, but after that I hope it will be stopped," he said.

Indonesia has yet to ratify a regional treaty on preventing haze, but Witoelar said that did not mean the government was doing nothing while waiting for parliament to act.

"I was also wondering why they are kind of hesitating, because it was me that handed over the document and said 'please ratify this', and I've been waiting as well as you," he told reporters at the lunch. "It does not reflect on our national effort" in fighting the problem, he said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forged an Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on June 10, 2002, but Indonesia and the Philippines have yet to ratify the treaty.

The haze hit its worst level in 1997-98 and cost the Southeast Asian region an estimated nine billion dollars by disrupting air travel and other business activities.

PlanetArk 5 Dec 06
Indonesia Aims to Contain Forest Fires in a Few Years

JAKARTA - Indonesia is intensifying efforts to prevent forest fires that have spread a blanket of smoke across the region and hopes to control the annual haze problem in the next few years, the environment minister said on Monday.

Indonesia's neighbours have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and palm oil plantation companies -- some owned by Singaporeans and Malaysians -- to clear land for cultivation.

The smoke from the fires, known in the region as haze, affected much of Southeast Asia for months until rains a few weeks ago, an unpleasant reminder of the choking smog that hit the region in 1997-98.

Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said the government had a three-pronged strategy to contain the fires, which included raising the water level on peat land and confiscation of plantation land responsible for forest fires.

"The strategy is not for dousing the fires but to prevent them from happening. We have concluded that the major areas of these fires are on peat land. That is why the focus of peat areas is very prominent in this strategy," Witoelar told foreign correspondents.

"Peat fires are different ... almost impossible to douse. So that is why we're trying to raise the water level so that peat areas cannot be readily burnt. He said Jakarta hoped ro raise water levels at least in part by building dams on cultivated land.

"Hopefully within March or April we will start preventing fires from happening," Witoeler said.

Indonesia has used large amphibious planes, leased from Russia and operated by Russian pilots, to help douse forest fires which have also been blamed for the death of about 1,000 orangutans during this year's dry season.

Witoelar said the government was not against new plantations, but would not allow them at the expense of the country's forests.

"There's 18.2 million hectares (44.97 million acres) readily available for them to plant without cutting down trees ... plantations are welcome but they're are not welcome to cut down trees," he said.

"We expect a decrease of 30-40 percent of happenings there" as a result of the measures. Jakarta says around 90 percent of this year's fires have been extinguished, but Witoelar said previously he feared they could flare again should dry El Nino conditions intensify.

El Nino is a weather pattern caused by the warming of Pacific waters off South America and can disrupt global weathd floods in parts of South America.

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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