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  Straits Times 20 Jan 07
Jakarta set to host meeting on fighting haze
By Azhar Ghani

JAKARTA - AFTER two false starts, Indonesia at last looks ready to hold a conference to mobilise international support for its anti-haze fight. It should take place by early next month, an Indonesian junior minister said.

The missed dates were never announced officially by Jakarta, but the event was said to have been planned first for December last year, and then on Wednesday this week.

Deputy Minister for Environment Masnellyarti Hilman told The Straits Times that the decision to delay the conference was made last Thursday at a meeting here between Indonesian environment officials and their counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

The three countries and Brunei are the Asean member states most affected by the annual haze from Indonesia's forest and land-clearing fires. Together with Indonesia, they make up a five-nation working group set up last October, along with a supervising panel of the countries' environment ministers, as part of a regional anti-haze drive.

Said Ms Masnellyarti: 'The group needs more time to come up with what we ourselves can muster in terms of resources so that we know what sort of support we would need from others. Once this is done, host Indonesia will decide the date.'

Some 30 countries and organisations are expected to attend the conference, which was first mooted last year by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to help Jakarta solve a problem it has struggled with for years.

Each year, smoke from fires - many believed to be deliberately lit to clear land - on Sumatra and in Kalimantan in Indonesia shrouds the region in a choking haze during the May- October dry season.

The haze limits outdoor activities and causes health problems. It also affects the economy by hitting tourists arrivals and disrupting transportation systems.

A bad spell in 1997 cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated US$4.5 billion (S$6.9 billion).

Relations between Indonesia and its neighbours have also been affected by the haze. At the height of the problem last October, Jakarta's ties with Singapore soured. Jakarta felt it was made to look bad when, first, Singapore tried to take the lead in looking for a solution, and later, when the Republic brought up the issue before the United Nations.

Singapore said it made the UN move to canvass international support for a problem that went beyond the capabilities of Indonesia and Asean. The upcoming conference is an extension of that, and is expected to boost Asean's efforts. They include an agreement by the five affected members to contribute to an anti-haze fund, and a plan for Indonesia's neighbours to work directly with its regional authorities to deal with the fires.

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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