The governments of Southeast Asia have agreed to work together to try to prevent a repeat of the devastating forest fires five years ago that spread choking air pollution throughout the region. Environmental activists say an agreement signed this week in Kuala Lumpur is a good first step to control pollution, but they say more needs to be done to prevent the forests from burning.

The 10 countries of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have signed what is being described as a landmark agreement to combat cross-border air pollution caused by forest fires. The "treaty on trans-national haze pollution" calls on member countries to strengthen their firefighting forces, enforce legislation to control open burning and establish early warning systems to prevent cross-border pollution.

In 1997 and 1998, fires in Indonesia produced serious smoke pollution across that country as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and parts of Thailand and the Philippines. The pollution cost $9 billion in economic losses in agriculture, tourism and transportation. Forestry specialist Cynthia Josayma says, in addition to those business losses, the air pollution of five years ago will produce even more health costs in the future.

"Kids that were born during that time were breathing in an equivalent of 25 years of cigarette smoking into their newborn lungs," she said, "the consequences [of the pollution] on young kids during those years are going to be an expensive health issue that the countries are all going to have to bear in the future."

Ms. Josayma keeps track of Pacific rim timber issues for a California-based environmental advocacy group called Pacific Environment.

Every year, farmers in Indonesia burn land to make space for new crops. But Ms. Josayma says the fires of 1997 and 1998 were not just the result of traditional farm practices.

She says the World Bank had decided that the region's economy needed to go through some structural changes because revenues from oil and timber exports were expected to decline. Ms. Josayma says the World Bank recommended that already-cut forested land be converted to plantation land to produce palm oil.

"What that actually did," she said, "was cause a fervor of cutting in the region to be able to ensure that people would have access to this pool of money that was being set aside for plantations.

Charles Barber, a specialist on Southeast Asian environmental affairs, says most of the money for palm oil plantations came from private investors, not public funds. But he agrees Indonesians have a history of cutting timber, then using fires to clear land to establish plantations. Mr. Barber says the government in Jakarta does not have much ability to stop the practice.

"I think certainly in the central government, there are people who would like to do more about this," he commented, "but the funds, the technical capacities and the institutional infrastructure ... the capacities on the ground to actually go out and monitor, enforce, stop people from burning, prosecute people ... all those kinds of things are very, very weak."

Mr. Barber notes that parts of Indonesia (Sumatra and Kalimantan) are again being covered by haze from fires. If the El Nino drought is as bad this year as it was in 1997, he says fires could again spread out of control and send smog throughout the region.

For the treaty to come into force, six of the 10 ASEAN member countries must ratify it. Cynthia Josayma wonders if there is enough political will in Indonesia to follow through on implementing the plan. Mr. Barber says the new ASEAN agreement may put more pressure on Indonesia to enforce its restrictions on open burning.

Richard Sheppard is deputy director of the US-Asia environmental partnership program at the Agency for International Development. He praises the treaty as a new commitment by ASEAN to coordinate efforts to deal with what he calls the extremely serious problem of fires and cross-border smog.

"It is not an isolated one-time event," Mr. Sheppard noted, "It is a recurring problem, and ASEAN is to be very much commended for beginning to address - in a coordinated fashion - efforts to deal with future disasters. But I think the agreement also indicates that they have to deal with the underlying problems that cause these fires to start in the first place."

Mr. Sheppard says that means creating new policies, enforcing the laws and providing better community management of forestry resources. He says it is important that individual countries follow through on fire prevention, and not just fighting the fires once they have erupted.

Cynthia Josayma agrees, adding that each country must allocate funds not just for airplanes and high-tech equipment, but for rural communities that are the first line firefighters and are home to the people whose lives depend on the preservation of forested lands.