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Choking Haze Drifts Across Asia - 2002-08-21

A large cloud of smoke is choking parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia as forest fires in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan burn out of control. The deadly haze has reached hazardous levels, causing health problems for residents in some areas.

It is a familiar story for Southeast Asia during the mid-year dry season. Smoke from forest fires becomes so dense that airline flights must detour and residents across the region suffer respiratory illnesses.

Officials in Indonesia say that this year, the haze comes from Kalimantan province, which makes up about two-thirds of Borneo island. More than 1,000 fires were reported on the island Wednesday.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed in June to cooperate more on detecting and fighting forest fires.

Raman Letchuman, an environmental spokesman for the ASEAN Secretariat in Indonesia, says that while satellite pictures help find the fires, the difficulty lies in putting them out.

"Traditionally during the dry season, the small farmers have to do some burning to clear the land and so on," said Mr. Letchuman. "Many of these areas are very remote and putting out fires in these areas is quite difficult."

He says that using planes to dump water on forest fires is one way of combating the fires.

However, Mr. Letchuman says prevention efforts work best. Educational programs teach plantation companies and farmers to clear land without using fire.

"The public awareness program, we have been targeting many sectors, the general public, especially the small farmers, they need to have a longer period of educative process," he said. "We also recognize that we can't tell them to stop burning completely because some of them use fire as a tool for their livelihood."

The Indonesian government banned open burning in 1999 after widespread fires produced a haze that covered much of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, sparking a diplomatic row.

Despite the new ASEAN initiatives, some environmental experts accuse Indonesian authorities of being too lax in enforcing the ban on burning.