Indonesians Pray for Rain Ahead of Haze Meeting
JAKARTA -- Hundreds of people prayed for rain on Wednesday in an Indonesian province hard-hit by forest fires as Southeast Asian environment ministers prepared to gather to discuss ways to tackle smoke haze covering the region.
Dry season fires caused by farmers and big businesses such as plantations have been burning for weeks in parts of Indonesia, creating a choking haze that has made many people ill, shut some Indonesian airports and threatened wildlife in protected forests.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said a meeting of Southeast Asian environment ministers proposed by Singapore would be held on Friday in Indonesia.
Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province on Sumatra island and close to some of the areas where the fires are bringing, would be the venue, a presidential aide said.
Ministers from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore would discuss ways to extinguish the forest and brush fires at the meeting.
Singapore had earlier offered to host the meeting but Indonesia wanted to host it, saying it had the biggest stake in the problem.
Yudhoyono said Indonesia was sorry the haze had affected neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.
"On behalf of the government of Indonesia, it is only fitting if I apologise even though it is obviously not the intention of Indonesia (to export the haze)," he told a news conference.
Most of the blazes are in southern Sumatra, just across the Malacca Strait from Malaysia and Singapore, as well as in Indonesia's part of Borneo island.
Yudhoyono said Indonesia would use all resources available to put out the fires.
Measures include enlisting soldiers and police and leasing two Russian cargo aircraft that could each carry 40 tonnes of water to be dropped in fire-hit areas, he said.
In hard-hit Central Kalimantan province on Wednesday, hundreds of Indonesians took a different approach, gathering in a field in the provincial capital Palangkaraya to pray for rain to clear the haze.
"As believers, the people of Palangkaraya pray for rain and ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoing," Dendul Toepak, spokesman for the Central Kalimantan government, told Reuters.
In other parts of the province, where rain had fallen, residents said visibility has improved significantly.
But Sutamto, a scientist at the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency in Jakarta, said immediate prospects for rain in Sumatra and Kalimantan were small.
Repeated attempts to stop the fires have failed in the past.
Severe fires and smog during a drought in 1997-98 made many people ill across a wide area of Southeast Asia and cost local economies billions of dollars. It badly hit the tourism and airline sectors and this year's haze has rekindled fears over the economic and health impacts to local economies.
Greg Clough, spokesman for the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia said he was reluctant to say whether the ministerial meeting would have any significant impact.
"It'll have impact in terms of putting pressure on the Indonesian government in ratifying the agreement, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen," Clough said, referring to a regional haze pact.
Indonesia bans slash-and-burn practices by farmers, timber firms and plantations. But prosecutions take time and few have stuck.
Adding to regional ire is Jakarta's slowness to ratify an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) pact aimed at tackling the problem.
Galvanised by the 1997-98 haze, Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002. Indonesia says the bill is pending approval in parliament. (Additional reporting by Ahmad Pathoni in JAKARTA)