Lifting Southeast Asia's haze

While the world looks transfixed on the tragedy unfolding in East Timor, Indonesia is beset with a smoldering problem that poses another threat to Southeast Asia's economies.

This time, however, foreign investors cannot be blamed.

A new round of forest fires on Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of Borneo, and Sumatra have created a thick haze reminiscent of the region's health-threatening smog of 1997.

At that time, Indonesia's fires destroyed 25 million acres of forest. Resulting smoke and pollution affected the health of approximately 70 million people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, and Thailand.

The cost to these countries in agricultural damage, lost tourism, and health care has been conservatively estimated at $1.4 billion dollars. Indonesia bore the brunt of the damage with an estimated $1 billion in losses, more than 90 percent of which was attributable to short-term, smoke-related health-care costs.

Despite recent rains, environmentalists are expecting the haze to worsen in the coming months as the dry season in Indonesia continues.

While global warming factors into the burning of Indonesia's forests, the main culprit of these fires are plantation companies that deliberately set forests ablaze to make way for agricultural development.

Indonesia's current environmental laws have many loopholes, and ministerial and local government directives banning burning have not held up in court. In three years Indonesia has managed to prosecute just two of the many firms suspected of starting these forest fires. Both firms are seeking presidential pardons.

On July 27, the air pollution index for Riau province on Sumatra reached 978 - well beyond the "hazardous" 300-point level. A day's exposure to pollutant levels of 300 or more is considered the equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Authorities were forced to close kindergartens and urged people to stay home and wear masks.

But masks are in short supply. Many of these masks are not effective because they do not adequately filter pollutant particles. Masks that do that are expensive and beyond the means of many in the area.

When the haze was at its worst in Riau on July 27, the foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were gathered for their annual meeting in Singapore.

The ministers pledged to keep the region haze free. So far, results have not been inspiring. A week after the ministerial meeting, poor visibility from the haze caused a tanker and a barge to collide, killing a dozen people.

ASEAN concedes that Indonesia ultimately must bear the responsibility for controlling the blazes.

Inaction by Indonesia's government is likely, however, as it is hobbled by more immediate crises: the recent referendum for independence in East Timor, strong separatist sentiments in Aceh and Irian Jaya, the continuing uncertainties about the selection of Indonesia's next president in November, and bank scandals.

On top of it all, the government is making efforts to maintain public confidence while instituting difficult economic reforms following a significant devaluation of Indonesia's currency.

The haze is proving that ASEAN's policy of "non-interference" in another country's internal affairs is no longer viable.

If the group's members were to pool a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars the haze cost them in 1997, perhaps cash-strapped Indonesia could mount an effective fire prevention operation.

More importantly, ASEAN needs to stress to Indonesia's current and future leaders the importance of promulgating and enforcing better laws that will require authorities to police timber companies, revoke the licenses of plantation companies guilty of slash-and-burn practices, and impose heavy fines on those companies found guilty.

Without such tough measures the blaze and haze will become Southeast Asia's perennial crisis for years to come.

ASEAN's leaders should not allow the longstanding but outdated policy of "non-interference" to cloud their judgment.

Otherwise, Southeast Asians will continue to pay a heavy price for Indonesia's weak environmental safeguards.

*John J. Brandon, a Southeast Asia specialist, is assistant director of The Asia Foundation in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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