Haze Brings Misery, Health Problems in Indonesia

Thick smoke from bush and forest fires in Indonesia has forced schools to close and brought misery to residents, officials said on Friday, with no sign of firefighters in one hard-hit area.

PELALAWAN, Indonesia — Thick smoke from bush and forest fires in Indonesia has forced schools to close and brought misery to residents, officials said on Friday, with no sign of firefighters in one hard-hit area.

A vast blanket of smoke, or haze as it is known locally, occurs every year in Indonesia, angering neighbours Singapore and Malaysia who have long demanded Jakarta do more to stop the dry-season fires being lit by farmers and big companies.

This year's haze appears to be worse than last year and has rekindled memories of a choking cloud of smoke that covered a large part of Southeast Asia in 1997-98, sickening large numbers of people and costing local economies billions of dollars.

Students in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, and other areas on the Indonesian side of Borneo island have been told to stay at home since Tuesday due to the worsening haze, said Beryn, an official at the local education ministry.

He said he and his family had been forced to use masks even at home and people complained of headaches, nausea and respiratory problems.

"I'm telling you honestly, my eyes hurt. We breathe with difficulty and our throats are dry and itchy," he told Reuters.

The smoke from bush and forest forest fires on Borneo and Sumatra island is an annual regional hazard during the dry season but this year's haze appeared worse than last year, Beryn said.

Around Pelalawan town in Riau Province on Sumatra island, there was no sign of firefighters on Friday with charred tree-stumps, amid pockets of burning, visible in all directions.

Visibility was cut to around 200 metres (660 ft) and many locals, who were not wearing face masks, could be heard coughing.

Fires have also spread to the Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, Yohanes Sudarto, the head of the local nature conservation agency, told Elshinta news Web site.

Four firefighting teams had been sent to the park to extinguish the blazes, he said.

In Malaysia, the environment minister was quoted as lashing out at Jakarta, saying the problem would go on as long as Indonesia did not ratify a regional treaty on haze.


In Singapore, the National Environment Agency said the air quality on Friday was the worst so far this year, with the Pollutants Standards Index at 80, up from 73 on Monday.

A PSI reading between zero and 50 is considered "healthy", 51-100 "moderate" and 101-200 "unhealthy".

But air quality in peninsular Malaysia appeared to have improved slightly on Friday although air quality readings in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo remained in the unhealthy zone.

Most of the fires are deliberately lit. Timber and oil palm plantation companies have often been blamed for burning to clear land.

Farmers, too, use slash-and-burn methods, a traditional practice magnified by a growing population, demand for land and the vast areas of forest that have been cleared in recent decades.

It is illegal to carry out slash-and-burn clearing in Indonesia, but prosecutions take time and few have stuck.

A particular concern this year is an increasing number of fires on peatland, which is highly flammable, producing more smoke and carbon emissions than other soil types. Peat fires can burn for months.

Galvanised by the 1997-98 fires, Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, but Indonesia has yet to ratify the pact that calls for cooperation and mobilisation of resources to tackle the problem.

Indonesia's Forestry Minister Malem Sambat Kaban on Thursday rebuffed neighbouring nations' complaints, arguing that a tireless drive involving thousands of people and costing many thousands of dollars was under way to put the fires out.

Environmental group Greenpeace urged Jakarta on Thursday to "break the cycle of fire and haze" threatening the health of millions across the region.

It blamed big industrial concerns for being behind many of the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, home to endangered animals such as orangutans, tigers and the Asian elephant.

Land tenure disputes have also been blamed for pushing others to set fires, WWF Indonesia, a conservation group, has said.

Local sources also point to limited government budgets and difficulty enforcing national policy locally. (Additional reporting by Ahmad Pathoni and Diyan Jari in JAKARTA and Jalil Hamid in KUALA LUMPUR and Mia Shanley in SINGAPORE)

Source: Reuters

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