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News 20 Apr 07
No easy solution to Indonesian haze problem
by Martin Abbugao
There is no easy solution to the Indonesian haze which has blighted southeast Asia every year for the past decade, a UN-backed conference on climate change was told Friday.
Experts said the problem, largely caused by using fire to clear land for agriculture, is not simply about preserving the environment but also involves addressing poverty and changing traditional practices.
Smoggy haze from the fires on Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan regions sent air pollution levels in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to unhealthy levels several times last year
"It is not just an environment problem," said Loh Ah Tuan, chief executive of Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA). "It is a social, political and economic problem. And if we try to force an environment solution to a problem such as this, I don't think we can get an answer," he told delegates on the final day of the Business Summit for the Environment.
More than 600 executives and environment experts attended the two-day gathering which discussed how global business can help lessen the impact of climate change.
Loh said the Singapore government is formulating a masterplan with Indonesia's Jambi province on how to fight the recurring haze in part of Jambi, on Sumatra island.
If successful, this model could be duplicated in other parts of Jambi, Loh said, adding results can only be achieved in a few years' time. This "grassroots" approach aims to complement other measures taken by the Indonesian government, he said.
Raman Letchumanan, head of the environment and disaster management unit at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat, said "this is a livelihood issue... it is a fight against tradition and poverty."
Budidaya, Jambi's forestry chief, outlined the enormity of the task, pointing out that Jambi alone has a total land area of 5.1 million hectares (13 million acres), with 2.2 million hectares of forest.
Farmers clear the land the cheapest way they can because of poverty and unemployment. High costs are also forcing many plantation firms to use fire to clear vast tracts of land and dispose of wood residue, Budidaya added.
Brad Sanders, head of fire safety at Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited, a developer of fibre plantations, said companies should be willing to spend money to clear the land instead of using a slash-and-burn method. The key to preventing fires is not to use fire, he said.
But Sanders agreed poverty was among the root causes. He identified small farmers, illegal plantation developers, and plantation companies which cannot afford mechanical means of clearing the land as the main sources of the burn-offs.
Indonesia's government has outlawed land-clearing by fire, but weak enforcement means the ban is largely ignored. Last year was the worst outbreak since the haze that blanketed much of Southeast Asia in 1997-1998.
Beyond causing health problems and denting tourist arrivals, scientists have warned that the gas emitted by the haze could help accelerate global warming.
One noticeable trend compared with 1997-1998 is the increasing area of peatlands being cleared by burning, environment experts said at a conference in Singapore last year. Fires in peatlands can cause much more smoke per hectare than other types of forest fires.
Southeast Asia has 60 percent of the world's tropical peatlands. Indonesia's peat swamps contain 21 percent of the earth's land-based carbon and unless action is taken, that carbon could become hot-house gas in 40 years, the experts said last year.
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