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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SCORCHED EARTH

The reckless torching of Indonesia's forest lands is one of the greatest man-made calamities of modern times

By Choong Tet Sieu


Go to a closeup of life inside the fires

Go to a look at the serious health problems caused by the haze

Go to a story about El Niņo

PERHAPS IT SPRINGS FROM A DESIRE not to offend. Or maybe it is just slack use of English. Whatever the reason, the noxious yellow-gray clouds that are poisoning Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and resort islands in southern Thailand and the Philippines are referred to as haze. In Indonesia, where this filth comes from, they call it kabut, meaning mist or fog. Fuzzy, harmless-sounding words that belie the incalculable harm inflicted by what is turning out to be Asia's worst man-made environmental catastrophe.

At the heart of the disaster is the burning-off of Indonesia's forest lands for agricultural purposes -- an annual activity that briefly raises pollution levels in neighboring countries but which is forgotten once the September rains settle in and douse the flames. But not this year. The fires are out of control -- partly because of the super-dry conditions caused by the El Niņo weather phenomenon, but mainly because just about anything goes in Indonesia's forests these days.

How widespread is the burning? The Indonesian government estimates 300,000 hectares are ablaze. The World Wide Fund for Nature says 600,000 hectares -- equivalent to the size of Brunei -- have been or are on fire. It calls the situation "a planetary disaster." While the fires have mainly raged on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, there were unconfirmed reports last week of new outbreaks on Mount Tumpeng in central Java and in the Mount Rinjani National Park on Lombok, next to the holiday island of Bali.

In the smog-engulfed Indonesian provinces of Jambi and Riau, in Sumatra, the air is so polluted that a local doctor compares breathing to smoking four packs of cigarettes a day -- for every man, woman and child. The grit-laden air brings tears to the eyes, chokes the lungs and produces darkness at noon. The smoke is so thick it hides the fires it springs from. Yet in the Riau provincial capital of Pekanbaru -- as elsewhere in the burning zones -- officials have done little to inform residents of the health risk.

In the end, local journalists took to the streets with placards urging locals to use surgical masks -- poor protection though they are. More than 10,000 residents have suffered respiratory problems since August, and yet for weeks children were allowed to run around in playgrounds. It was not until late September that Riau Governor Soeripto began warning people to reduce their activities outside.

Still, classes continued as usual -- until Sept. 24, when 20 students fainted during lessons and had to be rushed to hospital. Now even the stoic Sumatrans are worried. Children are developing lingering fevers, their parents debilitating coughs. A resident of the village of Langgam greets visiting journalists with a warm welcome, but warns: "I hope you won't fall sick."

The smog has put a stop to much agricultural work. There's not much latex to be tapped after rubber trees have been licked by flames. Instead, young men keep watch outside their villages, ready to sound an early warning should the fires spread their way. And the pollution is getting worse all the time, say residents of Jambi. Last week, some multinational companies in Sumatra decided they had had enough. They sent more than 1,000 expatriate staff and their families to Singapore. An executive called it "medical evacuation."

Critics say the Indonesian response to the disaster has been slow, casual and incompetent. Jakarta-based forestry consultant David Wall says the government has displayed a "severe lack of capacity" to tackle the situation. Apparently impatient with Indonesia's tardy response to the growing danger, Malaysia rushed 1,200 firemen to Sumatra -- where some found themselves cooling their heels. Says one fireman: "We came here to help. But we have been sitting around. The advance scouting should have been done earlier. Instead they waited till we arrived. This has wasted precious time." Others wonder why Malaysians were being used at all as they have little knowledge of the techniques needed to tackle forest fires. It would have been better to ask for help from Australia or Canada, say the critics.

As of last week, four Indonesians were known to have died as a direct result of the smoke. The health of hundreds of thousands of others has been affected, in many cases for ever. There has been talk of evacuating some Sumatran towns, but no one knows where to. Around Southeast Asia, more than 50,000 people have sought treatment for various ailments, particularly respiratory complications.

Investigators are probing the possibility that smoke may have contributed to the Sept. 26 crash of a Garuda Airbus on its approach to Medan airport, northern Sumatra. All 234 people on board died, making it Indonesia's worst air disaster. The crews of two aircraft circling the airport at the time say Airbus captain Henche Rachmo Wiyogo had complained about a blinding haze before seeking guidance from air traffic control. Reports say that after a confusing exchange of messages, Wiyogo had time merely to cry out "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) before the plane hit a mountainside.

Hours later, a supertanker and an Indian cargo ship collided in the smog-shrouded Strait of Malacca. Rescuers picked up five survivors from the Indian vessel. The other 29 on board were feared drowned. Clouds of ash also prevented relief flights to remote Jayawijaya in Irian Jaya, where 271 people have died because of drought-induced famine.

In Malaysia, thunderstorms and shifting winds last week brought respite from the smog that had been in the air since July. The air pollution index in Kuala Lumpur eased from 155 to 85, while the level in Kuching, Sarawak, dropped to 46 on Oct. 1 -- from an all-time high of 839 the preceding week. Readings between 50 and 100 are deemed "moderate," and levels up to 200 are "unhealthy."

Kuching residents poured into the streets after being cooped indoors during a 10-day state of emergency. Families packed malls and amusement centers; teens crowded into discos; life returned to normal. But joy is likely to be short-lived. Meteorologists reinforced Deputy Chief Minister George Chan's warning that a change in wind direction could bring back hazardous conditions.

What seems certain is that the fires will burn for some time. Peat seams, which cover extensive areas in Kalimantan and Sumatra, have been ignited. Once lit, peat burns slowly and is difficult to put out, says Malaysian forest fire expert Ahmad Ainuddin Nuruddin. This type of blaze is mostly caused by extensive land clearing, which removes the forest canopy and exposes the damp earth to the drying effects of the sun.

The best hope is to flood the area with great quantities of water, but there is little chance of that. Indonesia's worst drought in 50 years has created mud flats where ponds used to be. An alternative is to dig a firebreak -- but only if the seams are not too deep. Some of the burning peat is thought to be eight meters down. Failing that, the expert says, the only solution is to let the fires burn themselves out or wait for the monsoons. Nobody knows when that will be.

In the past, Indonesia's forest fires were started mostly by shifting cultivators: small farmers using slash-and-burn methods. But now the torching is on an industrial scale -- by operators of new palm-oil estates and tree plantations. Indonesia is set on raising output from its key timber, palm-oil and rubber sectors. To help meet targets, the government has in recent years allocated plantation companies vast tracts of jungle and swamp in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The jungle is dense and often without roads. Rather than struggle with heavy clearing equipment, managers find it easier and cheaper to set fire to the area.

By 1995, the burning had become such a problem the Indonesian government banned the practice. The order did little to change things. "Everyone knows that this isn't supposed to go on, but poorly paid agriculture and forestry inspectors just need to be given a bribe and they forget it's happening," says a plantation sector analyst.

This year, the outcry from around the region prompted President Suharto to reiterate the ban. Again few listened. Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja says 14 companies owned up to starting fires and yet continued to disobey the order. A further 132 are suspected of breaking the law. Others have stopped activities but plan to resume later. Says Abdul Rahim Hassan, managing director of a Guthrie subsidiary with plantations in Palembang, Sumatra: "We stopped burning a month ago when the haze became a problem. We're waiting for the rain. Then we'll continue." Rahim feels there is little choice. Normally, felled trees are either sold for plywood or, in the case of rubber, to make fibreboard. "But in Indonesia, we're not allowed to sell the logs," he says. "So if there's a haze, we stack them up and leave them till later [for burning]."

The Indonesian authorities face daunting odds. Many "hot spots" are located in terrain where access is difficult or almost impossible. Some 50,000 troops are said to have been mobilized, along with 8,400 firemen. But in key areas, experts say, personnel lack fire-fighting equipment, vehicles, communications gear, even maps.

Officials have taken the unusual step of publicizing the names of companies suspected of violating the fire ban, despite the clout large agricultural conglomerates wield. One errant plantation (not named) has had its expansion permit revoked. More face sanctions. To strengthen enforcers' hands, Suharto also enacted a law imposing stiffer penalties -- a fine of $75,000 and up to 15 years' jail.

But Environment Minister Sarwono acknowledges the government has shown little political will to take on the problem. Since March, he says, he has been warning related departments about the drought and the danger posed by setting fires. But he says they were "passive" in responding to complaints. For them, this was a natural disaster, not man-made. "People are waking up too late to this problem," he says. "Disgustingly late." Says one environmentalist: "It would help if the smoke blew over Jakarta for a day. But it's going the other way, so it's not seen as that much of a problem."

Southeast Asia can expect to pay for Indonesia's inertia for years to come -- in damage to its citizens' health, its economies and the environment. The World Health Organization warns of a dramatic rise in the number of haze-related deaths, particularly among the ill, the elderly and the very young. Exposure to the smog can further complicate existing ailments. "Nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, dioxins and volatile compounds latch on to the suspended particles which, because they are so fine, can get much further into the lungs. It's not good for us," says Mark Harrison, business services manager for the Singapore-based Regional Institute of Environmental Technology.

"It's an international catastrophe," says the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Syed Babar Ali. Between 40,000 and 60,000 hectares of protected forests and parkland have gone up in smoke, taking with them the habitat of endangered species such as Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants. Some animals have been driven out to more populated areas. Sarawak forestry official Oswald Braken says it could take at least 100 years to reforest the tracts destroyed.

In Malaysia, the leaden skies have meant reduced flowering and fruiting in plants. Crops, including rice, fruits and vegetables, could be affected. The likely result will be higher food costs next year. Other economic losses are being totted up, and more will roll in over the next few months.

In Sarawak, tens of thousands of man hours were lost when factories and construction firms had to stop work during the state of emergency. Tourism, a major income-earner around the region, is suffering. Some British travel agents are refusing to take new bookings for holidays in Southeast Asia. Tour groups from Hong Kong, Japan and elsewhere are either delaying or canceling their trips.

In keeping with the ASEAN tradition, the reaction from Indonesia's neighbors has been muted. But patience seems to be running thin. Says a Southeast Asian diplomat based in Jakarta: "When this happened in earlier years, we tried to impress on the Indonesians the severity of the problem. But we didn't see much happening. This time, we hope they get the message."

As one of the biggest victims of the pollution, Malaysia might have been expected to have the most to say. But it is hard to thump the table too loudly when you are part of the problem: 18 Malaysian joint ventures are among the companies suspected of starting fires. The Kuala Lumpur government is extracting a total of $1.2 million from 43 Malaysian corporations with plantation interests in Indonesia -- "contributions" towards the effort to solve the pollution disaster. Some 31 have promised to pay up and officials plan to pursue the rest.

In Singapore, where the local pollution index touched a high of 181 on Sept. 28 (see chart page 40), Health and Environment Minister Yeo Cheow Tong says he hopes lessons will be learned from the disaster. At the start of the next dry season, he suggests, Indonesian authorities should crack down hard on firms clearing their land by burning. It will send a clear signal that such action is not tolerated.

Says the Bangkok Post: "If Indonesia refuses to address its deadly pollution seriously, its neighbors must force the issue." Legal action is one avenue. "If it happens again, we may have to claim compensation in an international court," says N.M. Masri, a scientific officer with the Malayan Nature Society. In Indonesia, the environment group Walhi has raised the possibility of class-action suits, allowed under the new law to punish polluters.

Few people in Indonesia place faith in such measures putting an end to the activities of the boldest culprits, given their connections with the top of the political establishment. But the growing economic cost of the fires to Indonesia's neighbors might. In the end, the solution will probably lie with ASEAN.

With reporting by Santha Oorjitham / Kuala Lumpur, Keith Loveard / Jakarta and S.C. Chan / Kuching

CAUSE AND EFFECT Fires burning out of control, left, have cast a pall of choking smoke across swathes of Southeast Asia, above. Have the Indonesians now learned their lesson?


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