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Southeast Asian Nations Meet to Discuss Smoke from Annual Indonesian Burn-off

  • Nancy-Amelia Collins

Southeast Asian environment ministers, meeting in emergency session in Indonesia, have agreed that more urgent measures are needed to battle the annual haze blanketing the region from brush-clearing fires.

Each year, farmers and large companies on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the Indonesian section of Borneo set hundreds of fires, as a cheap way to clear land.

The smoke from the fires covers not only the areas where the fires start, but also drifts over into neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, and the cloud of smoke - generally referred to as "haze" - can be choking.

Over the past few weeks the smoke from the fires has been so serious that governments have issued health warnings and, in some places, urged people to stay inside.

Environment ministers from Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand held an emergency meeting Friday in the Sumatran city of Pekanbaru, one of the areas worst hit by the choking haze, to try to figure out what to do about it.

The ministers issued a statement saying they would take steps to solve the recurring problem, but without providing details.

However, Yuri Thamrin, a spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, gave some idea of what the agreement entails.

"It identifies elements of cooperation, both for prevention and mitigation of forest fires," he said. "It has adopted concrete concepts and ideas, for instance establishing a regional fund, in which all member countries, all ASEAN countries, contribute something to be used for mitigation and prevention."

Indonesia, facing criticism for its repeated failures to prevent the annual haze, only agreed this week to ratify a Southeast Asian pact that calls for regional cooperation to fight the fires.

The statement from Friday's emergency meeting urged Indonesia to finalize the pact.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono earlier this week apologized for the smoke, while teams of firefighters tried to put out the blazes.

But officials say relief will only come with the annual rains, which are scheduled to arrive within the next few weeks.

Rully Sumanda, forest campaign manager for the Indonesian environmental group WALHI, says the Indonesian government has not been equipped to fight the fires.

"The dangerous thing is, until now, the government of Indonesia doesn't have enough infrastructure to stop the forest fire, doesn't have enough good policy to stop the fires," he said.

While slash-and-burn clearing of land is illegal in Indonesia, few people have ever been jailed for the offense.

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