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  Channel NewsAsia 28 Feb 07
Indonesian government confident it can halve number of forest fires this year
By Channel NewsAsia's Indonesia Bureau Chief Sujadi Siswo

BRUNEI: The Indonesian government is confident it can halve the number of forest fires in the country this year.

The fires have resulted in an annual haze that spreads to neighbouring countries, and affected nations say they will assist Indonesia with its multi-million dollar plan, but remain cautious about the ambitious target.

The haze has resulted in millions of lost tourism dollars and numerous health complaints.

In Brunei, Environment Ministers from five ASEAN countries are discussing ways to tackle the problem. This is the third time they have met after last year's smoke from Indonesia's forest fires blanketed parts of the region - resulting in the worst haze since 1998.

It reflects the determination of neighbouring countries - Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei - to nail the problem at its roots, early. Indonesia has come up with a multi-million dollar plan to tackle forest fires, but says it needs help to carry it out.

"I think it is our primary responsibility that Indonesia has funding of its own. In fact, it is more than you mentioned. It starts off at US$80 million and we have added funds to the excess of another US$70 million, but that's not enough. So we will be welcoming other sources of funding whether it be international as well as bilateral and other organisational funding to supplement what we need," says Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesian Environment Minister.

Indonesia is confident that the comprehensive plan - which includes reaching out to thousands of farming communities in Sumatra and Kalimantan - will halve the number of forest fires.

It is clearly an ambitious target, considering millions of hectares of land were razed last year.

"If we are able to develop the plan and get local ownership quickly - that means building capacity at the local area - I think over the long run we are confident we can reduce the problem. In the short term I think we have to be very realistic - there are gaps especially in terms of capacity - funding is a major concern," says Dr Yaccob Ibrahim, Singapore Water Resources and Environment Minister.

Singapore will assist Indonesia by working with local authorities in Jambi, Sumatra, to tackle the problem.

Malaysia, another Indonesian neighbour badly affected by the haze, is considering a similar approach.

"Malaysia will go along with what our nearest neighbour Singapore is doing because I think they've gone quite ahead and we are looking at what they are doing, and the model they're doing is very suitable and very interesting and we will join with them," says Azmi Khalid, Malaysian Natural Resources & Environment Minister.

It is still five months away from the annual dry season but the support for Indonesia's plan of action to tackle forest fires could not have come too soon.

Experts predict this year's dry season will be prolonged and weather conditions will be more extreme due to the El Nino phenomenon.

But ASEAN leaders are optimistic that early intervention such as educating farming communities in Indonesia to adopt a zero-burning method of land clearing will help reduce the incidence of forest fires and haze in the region. - CNA/yy

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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