Fires bring "haze" to Sumatra and Kalimantan

Down to Earth No 53-54  August 2002

Choking smoke from fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan has caused respiratory health problems and disrupted transport services in several cities in western Indonesia over the past weeks. Large clusters of fires - known as "hot-spots" have been detected by satellite monitoring in North, West and South Sumatra, Riau, Jambi and Bengkulu provinces on Sumatra and in Central, South and West Kalimantan.

In West Kalimantan's provincial capital, Pontianak, health officials handed out 1,000 smog masks to drivers out in the early morning smog. The local environment office warned people not to leave their homes at night. Visibility was down to 50m and flights in and out of the city were cancelled. Many people were complaining of sore eyes and respiratory problems, according to state news agency Antara.

Indonesia's neighbours are also anticipating problems. In July, Thailand's health advised southern Thais to seek medical help if their eyes or throats become irritated by smoke and supplied public health offices in the south with face masks.

This is an "El Niño" year, when fires are expected to be worse than other years, although reports say the climatic effect is relatively weak this year. The last El Niño brought in its wake devastating forest and cropland fires which burned through 1997 and 1998, causing billions of dollars of damage and an as yet unknown impact on health in the region. An estimated 3 million hectares of lowland forests and 1.5 million hectares of peat and swamp forest were burned, forest peoples' livelihoods were devastated and, as a result, food shortages were suffered in some areas. (See DTE 35 & DTE 36 and Forests, People and Rights:16)

Five years on, not very much has changed in terms of Indonesia's capacity to fight the fires. Neither has there been much legal action against the plantation companies who use illegal burning methods to clear land in their concessions. One of the few successful prosecutions was against PT Adei, an oil palm plantation developer in Riau. In June the company was fined Rp100 million (around US$10,000) for offences committed in the year 2000. Four other companies are also close to being brought to court, according to the government. But a handful of prosecutions is unlikely to put off the big companies who are used to government protection. A total of 176 companies were identified by the forestry department as having fires in their concessions in 1997 (see DTE 35:8 and this issue for a summary of recent fires cases.)


New ASEAN anti-haze treaty

Indonesia signed a binding treaty to combat the "haze" with fellow-ASEAN countries in June, but there is scepticism both within Indonesia and among its neighbours that Jakarta has the required political will to clamp down on the annual burning. In July, forestry minister Mohammad Prakosa said his department had allocated Rp 65 billion (US$6.5 million) for fire-fighting, but admitted that there were not enough trained personnel to do the job. Deputy minister for environment conservation, Liana Bratasida, who attended the Kuala Lumpur treaty signing, said Jakarta would "slowly come around to doing things" and that it would "involve a mindset change for the government, bureaucrats and people that start fires".

The treaty sets out the obligations of member states and details preventative measures and responses expected of ASEAN's 10 member countries. It provides for the establishment of an ASEAN Co-ordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control to co-ordinate action against fires and haze. It says that civil society organisations should be consulted in addressing haze problems: countries "should involve, as appropriate, all stakeholders, including local communities, non-governmental organisations, farmers and private enterprises." The treaty also lists as a preventative measure: "promoting and utilising indigenous knowledge and practices in fire prevention and management". However, the agreement does not specifically identify large companies as the main cause of the fires, referring only to the need for "legislative, administrative and/or other relevant measures…to control open burning and to prevent land clearing using fire."

The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution is on the ASEAN website at

(Source: The Straits Times 12/Jun/02; New Straits Times 12/Jun/02; Jakarta Post 10&12/Jul/02; Suara Pembaruan 14/Jul/02; AFP 8/Jul/02; AP 17/Jul/02)