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  Straits Times 20 Jun 07
Singapore and Malaysia update Asean haze plans
But proposals to help two Indonesian provinces could be stalled by politics
By Azhar Ghani

Today Online 20 Jun 07
Haze in two weeks' time?
Indonesia's promise to halve number of hotspots this year a 'big challenge'
Nazry Bahrawi in Pangkalan Kerinci, Riau

Jakarta Post 18 Jun 07
Indonesia ready for forest fires, but adverse to foreign help


Straits Times 19 Jun 07
5 Asean ministers to review anti-haze efforts
Countries most affected to discuss moves to combat annual problem
By Azhar Ghani

JAMBI - ENVIRONMENT ministers from the five Asean countries most affected by the annual haze will meet in Indonesia tomorrow to review the progress made by the host country in combating the cross-boundary problem.

The meeting will be held in Jambi, a province on the east coast of central Sumatra, which suffers from chronic fire and haze problems annually.

The talks, involving Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei, will be preceded by a technical meeting of environment officials from the five countries today.

The meetings will take place on the back of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's call last week for governors from the country's fire-prone provinces to step up and take charge of anti-haze efforts.

In a Cabinet meeting also attended by the governors of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, East, West, Central and South Kalimantan, he had also announced that Jakarta would be ready to spend up to 100 billion rupiah (S$17 million) for fire-fighting efforts - the same amount it set aside last year.

Back then, Dr Yudhoyono made a similar anti-haze rallying call early in the year, only to be embarrassed when a prolonged dry season later led to one of the worst bouts of haze the region had seen in five years.

Forest and land-clearing fires in Sumatra, as well as Kalimantan, have been the major source of the yearly smoke that shrouds a large part of South-east Asia during the dry season.

A bad spell in 1997 cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated US$4.5 billion (S$6.8 billion).

In February, Indonesia unveiled a national plan to fight the problem, which included proposed coordinated measures by ministries and regional governments, among other initiatives.

The plan also laid out education as a goal: Specifically, to teach villagers how to clear land without resorting to the slash-and-burn method. This national plan was on top of measures mooted last October as haze-affected Asean countries decided to be more pro-active in tackling the issue.

Jakarta had then proposed for Asean member countries to adopt fire-prone Indonesian provinces to help solve the problem. The proposal was endorsed by Asean last November, and Singapore adopted Jambi.

Last week, Singapore Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said that a masterplan the Republic drew up to help Jambi's anti-haze efforts had been handed over to the Indonesians.

The masterplan addresses fire prevention and suppression, legislation and enforcement, early warning and monitoring, and regional and international collaboration. Dr Yaacob also said he plans to query Indonesia's progress on its commitment to cut the number of hot spots by 50 per cent this year.

However, on Sunday, Indonesian Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban told the Antara news agency that he had not received the proposal.

When contacted last night, Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar told The Straits Times that he would clarify the confusion when he arrives in Jambi today.

Meanwhile, Mr Kaban was reported by the Jakarta Post yesterday as saying that Indonesia is prepared to handle forest fires this year. But he added that the country will examine offers of foreign assistance carefully as these could threaten Indonesia's sovereignty.

Jakarta Post 18 Jun 07
RI ready for forest fires, but adverse to foreign help

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta Indonesia is prepared to handle more forest fires this year and will receive foreign assistance only on advice, said Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban.

"The government is more prepared because we are coordinating with all related stakeholders," Kaban told Antara news agency in Batam, Riau Islands on Sunday.

The minister said he was concerned foreign aid could disturb the country's sovereignty so the government would carefully examine every offer of overseas assistance or cooperation.

A series of fire prevention workshops have since May been held in Jambi, South Sumatra, South Kalimantan and West Kalimantan. The workshops involved participants from the ministries of forestry and agriculture, the office of coordinating minister for people's welfare, the state ministry of environment, forestry and agricultural businesspeople as well as local administrations and communities.

Kaban said forest fires had brought air pollution to neighboring countries but Indonesia should not be fully blamed.

"Not just Indonesia experiences forestry fires, the U.S. also experiences (them)," said Kaban.

Forest fires in Indonesia were a natural phenomenon and directly related to the country's lengthy dry season, he said.

Last year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote a letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressing his disappointment over smog from land-clearing fires in Indonesia because the smog had blanketed parts of Southeast Asia.

But Kaban said about 60 percent of the fires were located in peatlands, which were high-risk fire zones during the dry season.

It was reported the Singapore government had proposed a master plan to help the Indonesian government to handle forest fires. According to Singapore's Minister of the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim, the proposal would include a strategy to assist Jambi, a province in Sumatra, in the prevention of fire disasters.

But Kaban said he had not received the proposal.

This year the government would allocate up to Rp 144 billion (US$15.8 million) to deal with forest fires and smog and to alleviate condemnation from neighboring countries. The government said last week governors and regents would be prepared to deal with the disasters and would aim to reach a target of "zero hot spots".

"We now have less than 100 hot spots across Kalimantan, South Sulawesi, Riau, Jambi and North Sumatra," Kaban said. "Last year, there were thousands."

The ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Service in Singapore said between June and August last year, 52,599 hot spots affected 8,500 ha of forest land across Indonesia. And forest-fire haze from Indonesia last year affected millions of people in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, parts of Thailand and the Philippines.

Today Online 20 Jun 07
Haze in two weeks' time?
Indonesia's promise to halve number of hotspots this year a 'big challenge'
Nazry Bahrawi in Pangkalan Kerinci, Riau nazry@mediacorp.com.sg

SOMEWHERE on an open airstrip in Riau, an airplane is ready to spring into action as a fire-fighting machine. The AT602 plane, used more frequently to spray fertiliser on plantations, can also carry about 2,400 litres of water enough to help douse fires in the haze-prone region.

But, it hasn't been busy on that front lately. Its owner, pulp and paper manufacturer Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April), had offered to share the one-seater plane with the Riau authorities to control fires about three months ago. The firm has yet to receive a reply.

"We proposed it in March this year but they (the Riau government) haven't signed it yet. They probably will once the fire starts," said Mr Brad Sanders, head of fire and safety at the Singapore-based April.

And that would be soon the haze period is slated to start in two weeks' time.

Officials from five Asean countries, including Singapore, are in Jambi to hear how Indonesia plans to tackle the problem this year (see box).

Forest fires in parts of Indonesia, such as the Riau and Jambi provinces in Sumatra, are largely the cause of the transboundary haze that had hit Asean in the past few years. Last October, Singapore's haze situation reached unhealthy PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) levels between 101 to 200.

With two weeks left to the dry season, farmers in Riau are preparing to clear their lands using the inexpensive slash-and-burn method inevitably leading to forest fires again.

Last year, the province recorded almost 9,000 hotspots, said Mr Sanders.

But only about 2 per cent of these took place within April's plantation areas, which measures more than twice the size of Singapore. And this is not solely because of their fire-fighting capabilities, which includes another 70 full-time fire-fighters, 20 pick-up trucks, an airboat and a helicopter, said Mr Sanders.

This, he believes, is also due to April's active attempts to provide economically viable avenues for locals living in its jurisdiction to steer clear of slash and burn practices.

He said: "We help communities develop small profitable enterprises such as haircut shops and honey production. So, people have other sources of income other than the agrarian-based one. There will be a lesser chance of them resorting to slash and burn."

But there is only so much one company can do.

A large part of the problem in tackling the haze situation boils down to bureaucracy and a lack of political will at all levels.

"In Indonesia, there is really no system in place to respond to all the sources of fire at one time. The problem here is that the people want the fires to burn. They are lighting them on purpose to clear the land. ... It's a conundrum," said Mr Sanders.

He also cited the inefficient use of two fire-fighting airplanes that the Indonesian government leased from Russia late last year: "By the time they (the airplanes) arrived, the rainy season had already started. They spent US$5.2 million ($8 million) and it wasn't used effectively, unfortunately."

Mr Fitrian Ardiansyah, programme director of climate and energy for WWF Indonesia, believes Indonesia's commitment to reduce the number of hotspots by 50 per cent this year is a "big challenge".

He told Today: "Transforming political pledge to action on the ground requires more than just willingness. Infrastructure and coordination to prevent and fight fires need to be under one command. Nowadays, the blame game is still happening among different sectors and levels that is, between the central and local governments."

FINGERS CROSSED IN JAMBI

It has promised to reduce its hotspots (picture) by 50 per cent this year. And today will see Indonesia updating its immediate neighbours of its progress towards achieving this objective.

Representatives from five Asean countries Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are in Jambi to attend the third meeting of the sub-regional steering committee on the transboundary haze pollution. Singapore's Minister of Environment and Water Resources, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim leading the Singapore delegation told reporters last week that he hopes Indonesia can keep their promise.

He also said that Singapore had submitted to Indonesia a haze masterplan that covers fire prevention and suppression, legislation and enforcement as well as regional and international collaboration.

But Indonesian Forestry Minister M S Kaban was quoted by its national news Antara as saying that he had not received the proposal.

Straits Times 20 Jun 07
Singapore and Malaysia update Asean haze plans
But proposals to help two Indonesian provinces could be stalled by politics
By Azhar Ghani

JAMBI (SUMATRA) - SINGAPORE and Malaysia yesterday presented updates of proposed plans to help two fire-prone Indonesian provinces that they have adopted as part of Asean's anti-haze drive.

A key plank of the plans involves fire prevention measures. These include providing alternative livelihood for small-time farmers and also making it worthwhile for them not to burn cleared vegetation by teaching them to turn these materials into compost or charcoal.

But the implementation of the comprehensive initiatives could be hamstrung as they hinge on formal government- to-government agreements that Indonesia insists should be the basis of any cooperation.

These accords - a letter of intent in Singapore's case, and a memorandum of understanding with Malaysia - are still up in the air as Jakarta treads carefully for fear of upsetting a domestic audience who might see the agreements as possibly infringing on Indonesia's sovereignty.

Singapore has already responded to Indonesia's request for comments on a draft of the letter of intent and is now waiting for Jakarta's next move, while Malaysia is still awaiting word on its MOU.

The two countries had adopted two Indonesian provinces in Sumatra after Jakarta proposed that Asean member countries partner the local authorities from fire-prone districts to combat haze.

Singapore picked Jambi province, on the east coast of central Sumatra, while Malaysia chose Riau, just north of Jambi.

The details of the plans for these collaborations, as well as the possible hitches, were revealed at a meeting of officials from the five Asean countries most affected by the annual haze caused by Indonesia's forest and land fires.

A ministerial-level meeting, which will review the discussions, will take place today.

Indonesian Environment Minister Masnellyarti Hilman, who chaired yesterday's meeting, told the delegates from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei that her ministry would need to put comprehensive details down in these agreements so that 'I can answer questions easily from other (Indonesian) institutions and Parliament'.

Jakarta had previously indicated it was not fully open to getting foreign help in fighting its annual fire problem.

A key player in Indonesia's anti-haze initiative, Forestry Minister M.S Kaban, was reported by Antara news agency as saying on Sunday that he was concerned foreign aid could undermine Indonesia's sovereignty, and he would examine every offer of overseas aid or cooperation.

In fact, there is already a problem with one of Singapore's proposal in its collaboration with the Jambi government. Singapore had put up a plan for international environmental bodies with expertise on peatland management to help the Jambi government tackle the issue, with possible funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Said Ms Masnellyarti: 'This is something very sensitive. I have already had questions coming from the Foreign Ministry and the Cabinet Secretary about whether this would be a soft loan or a grant.

'We have an existing bilateral arrangement with the ADB, and we have national laws on this matter.'

Jakarta's reluctance to fully embrace foreign help could also scuttle a proposal by Singapore Minister for Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim for Indonesia to hold a second international conference to drum up global support for the regional anti- haze drive.

In February, Indonesia held the first such conference in Jakarta, where it spelt out its plans to resolve the problem in the hope of convincing potential donor countries and agencies to help pay for the battle.

Experts said Jakarta needs some 600 billion rupiah (S$102 million) to bring the problem under control.

The Straits Times understands that Dr Yaacob's proposal was to get the international community to commit as they would be able to hear of the progress made in the various efforts by the Indonesian government, either on its own or in collaboration with its neighbours.

Meanwhile, during the meeting, the Asean Secretariat revealed that while the Asean Haze Fund is ready to accept contributions, none of the pledges made has been fulfilled yet. Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei had previously committed US$50,000 (S$77,000) each as initial contributions. azhar@sph.com.sg

Singapore collaboration expected to halve number of hot spots

SINGAPORE'S collaboration with Jambi province is expected to help Indonesia achieve its aim of halving the number of hot spots this year. The plan will focus on the Muaro Jambi regency, which is roughly nine times the size of Singapore.

Singapore sent a fact-finding team to Jambi in January this year and hosted a workshop in March to come up with a fire prevention and mitigation draft master plan. This was handed to Jakarta on March 16.

The Jambi plan, which will dovetail with the Indonesian national plan, details long- and short-term projects. These include measures to increase awareness of fire prevention, provide livelihood alternatives for slash-and-burn farmers, and promote responsible farming and peatland management practices.

Malaysia, on the other hand, will partner Riau province and focus much of its efforts on Rokan Hilir regency as well as districts where Malaysian plantation companies are located.

Measures planned include programmes to increase awareness of fire prevention, improve the fire-fighting, monitoring and early warning capabilities of the local authorities and promote zero-burning practices for farmers and plantations.

Malaysian companies with plantations in Indonesia are expected to play a big part in the Riau plan, with major players such as the Guthrie Group getting involved.
AZHAR GHANI

Rain keeps hot spots down - for now

JAMBI (SUMATRA) - SINCE March, wetter weather conditions in the southern Asean region have helped to keep the number of hot spots in traditionally fire-prone areas relatively low.

The Singapore-based Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) said at the meeting in Jambi yesterday that in Riau province, for example, there were 392 hot spots in March this year compared with 881 last year.

The figures in April, May and June showed a similar dip. This trend was also reflected in the hot spot counts for other fire-prone provinces such as Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan.

But the ASMC cautioned that as the traditional dry season sets in next month, the number of hot spots in fire-prone areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan can be expected to increase. It added that the haze could make a return if there were extended periods of dry weather.

The ASMC also expressed concern that as the wetter weather conditions from March until now had prevented burning activities, the rush to make up for lost time could mean more fires in the upcoming dry months.
AZHAR GHANI

links
Singapore submits haze masterplan to Indonesia
Channel NewsAsia 14 Jun 07

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