In Asia's Big Haze, Man Battles Man-Made Disaster

Since July, fires have destroyed millions of acres and covered five countries with smoke.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The fires that have ravaged Indonesia for months do not just rage through the forests. They sneak through the peat swamps of Borneo and Sumatra, invisible at times to the human eye and satellites alike. But the damage they do is all too visible.

The fires are man-made, set to clear land for small-time farmers, private plantations, and agricultural experiments commissioned by President Suharto. They have hidden much of Southeast Asia in a choking smog as thick as the fog in San Francisco and more poisonous than the worst Los Angeles smog. And nothing but a full-scale monsoon will put them all the way out.

Officials had declared victory after the first rains started in early October, but within days they admitted that the number of hot spots, detected on satellite photographs, had increased once again. Four days after an army of more than 1,000 Malaysian firefighters returned home from Sumatra, the fires they helped "put out" reappeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

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"It looks like the fires are gone, but we don't know if they are really out," says Sulmin Gumiri, an expert on water conservation at the University of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan. Stepping gingerly over the charred remains of trees and bushes at the edge of the university, he adds, "as soon as the wind starts blowing, it may light up again."

Frustrated with government firefighters, who are outnumbered by the fires and armed with mere sticks and shovels, the students and faculty in Palangkaraya have devised a cheap and effective way to douse the fires that have threatened their campus.

The day before, he and fellow volunteers had doused the flames that threatened to destroy their new soccer field, using plastic bags filled with water and three pumps connected to a nearby well. An engine pumps water up from a nearby well to a ditch dug by the students at the high edge of a burning field. The water washes down the field, slowly soaking the field and dousing the fire where it hides in the peat bogs that cover much of Central Kalimantan in Borneo.

"Two weeks ago it was very bad," Gumiri says, looking up at the yellow haze that has blocked the sun for weeks. "Then it rained, and it was better. But of course a few rain showers can't stop the fire. The fire is underground."

Estimates of the damage the fires have caused since July range from 247,000 acres to 4,199,000 acres, including villages, wildlife reserves, timber concessions, and palm-oil plantations.

But perhaps even more troubling is the atmospheric damage. Jack Rieley, a peat bog specialist at the University of Nottingham in Britain, estimates that the peat-bog fires in Indonesia could release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the next six months than all the power plants and cars in Western Europe emit in a year.

Indonesia's friends and neighbors have poured in assistance. A Wyoming Air National Guard squadron arrived in October with two C-130 Hercules aircraft, equipped to drop 3,000 gallons of water per flight. Malaysia, the worst affected among the five neighboring countries that have been affected by smoke from Indonesia's fires, has sent in firefighters. Australia lent two water bombers and Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and Canada have offered their experts and equipment.

Fires burn unchecked

But there is little evidence that Jakarta has rallied serious resources to battle the flames. All along the 120-mile road from Palangkaraya to Banjarmasin, one of Kalimantan's main ports, fires burned unchecked over the weekend, and some were lit anew by farmers eager to clear the land before sowing the next crop.

Burned leaves and ashes swirled like black snowflakes, and visibility dropped to 50 yards at times, particularly near a site that local farmers refer to as "the Project."

This is the One Million Hectare Project, launched by Suharto in 1995 to boost rice production by 2.7 million tons per year and relocate 300,000 families from overcrowded Java and Bali to the spacious lowlands of Kalimantan. In the past two decades, the government has moved 6 million people to less crowded islands in the archipelago, including 3,500 families to Central Kalimantan.

But most of the tiny huts they received from the government stand empty, the wooden Balinese temples have been left behind. Peat swamp is not suited for rice cultivation, and hunger drove many farmers back to their homeland.

The One Million Hectare Project, roughly 60 miles wide and 60 miles long, aims to offer farmers better conditions, with proper irrigation and drained fields in place before they arrive.

Sumatra Timur Indonesia and Wijaya Karya, government contractors for the project, have carved up the territory with canals to drain the swamps and have converted 44,600 acres of swamp to rice fields so far. But according to local farmers, agronomists, and environmentalists, some of the government contractors also set fire to the peat bog this summer.

"The fires came from the project," says one shopkeeper at the side of the road, pointing south at blackened fields along one canal. "They just let it burn, and then they started clearing the land for the rice fields."

The contractors declined to comment, but Sutrisno Ruslan, who is in charge of public works in the region of Palangkaraya, insists the contractors had no role in burning the peat bog. He blames the first group of transmigrants who moved in. "A transmigrant gets 2 hectares [about 5 acres]. That's quite a lot. Maybe they are too lazy to clear it and just set it on fire. Fire costs nothing. Mostly that is not a problem, they've been doing that for centuries."

The same logic holds true for the palm-oil plantations, which have been blamed publicly for most of the fires. "They rushed to open new plantations because the price for palm oil is good, and just set the fields on fire," Mr. Sutrisno says.

When smoke clears, few changes

Few have any hope that this year's fires will persuade farmers and plantation owners to opt for safer alternatives to burning. Farmers cannot afford the equipment that is needed to extract roots from the soil, and only a few plantation owners invest in proper composting techniques.

The government has given little indication it intends to force them to mend their ways. Sutrisno said that the first stage of the One Million Hectare Project will cost 872 billion rupiah ($242,222,200).

Part of the money has come from a reforestation fund, financed by timber companies. Mr. Suharto funneled another 250 billion rupiah of this fund toward a pulp and paper factory owned by Bob Hasan, his golf partner. The sum allotted from the fund toward fighting the fires: 2.6 billion rupiah.

Along the road from Palangkaraya to Banjarmasin, two farmers gathered branches in a torched patch of forest. They put the branches in stacks and set them on fire again. Nearby, someone had chalked a sentence on the road in big white letters: "Here ends the Project." But the fires do not end there.

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