Jakarta under pressure to solve fire problem

FOREIGN Minister Ali Alatas acknowledged yesterday that Indonesia was under pressure to solve the problem of forest fires because of the wider effects that smoke and worsening haze were having on neighbouring countries.

“Of course there is pressure in the sense that as friends, Singapore and Malaysia are hoping we do something about it because it is affecting them,” he said at a talk organised by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

He was responding to a question on whether Singapore and Malaysia had put pressure on Indonesia to come up with solutions, and whether this had caused friction between the neighbours.

He underscored the seriousness with which Jakarta viewed the problem and regretted that Singapore and Malaysia had to bear the brunt of the smoke and haze from forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra, adding: “Unfortunately the wind is blowing in their direction and bringing with it all the negative consequences.”

Fires in Central and West Kalimantan, which have destroyed more than 300,000 hectares of forest as of July this year, have caused haze problems in Malaysia while forest fires in the Sumatran provinces of Riau and Jambi have clouded skies over Singapore. The haze has affected air and sea traffic and given rise to health concerns in the region.

He reiterated that Indonesia was doing its best to tackle the fires. The government had imposed “very drastic restrictions”, which included President Suharto’s order of an indefinite ban on land clearing by fire.

Jakarta said earlier that more than 80 per cent of forest fires were caused by controlled burnings to clear land for plantations. The remaining 20 per cent resulted from traditional slash-and-burn clearance methods.

Mr Suharto’s order on Tuesday included firm action against companies for non-compliance. Those who violate it would have their business licences revoked and could face other legal action.

But according to Mr Alatas, Indonesia was not alone in tackling the problem. “We are finding ways to resolve this problem by cooperating with countries like Singapore and Malaysia,” he said.

Singapore has been helping by providing satellite-image monitoring of the fires. Malaysia started a cloud-seeding programme to trigger rain and Jakarta has indicated that it might begin a similar artificial rain project.

Environment ministers from the three countries are due to meet in Manado, Indonesia, next week for their annual meeting and the haze issue is expected to be a focus of discussions.

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