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Land-clearing fires foul Malaysia's air

September 19, 1997
Web posted at: 6:17 p.m. EDT (2217 GMT)

From Correspondent May Lee

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- The thick, smoky haze covering Malaysia has gone from bad to worse, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency Friday.

So hazardous is the air quality that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad wore a surgical mask in public -- and urged his countrymen to do the same.

The haze spreading across Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia is coming from neighboring Indonesia. There, thousands of fires have been deliberately set by loggers and farmers, using a land-clearing technique called "slash and burn."

"I think it's really an indication of the fact that Indonesia, and probably Malaysia as well, do not have control over their forest situations," said Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute. "They are going to be suffering economic as well as health consequences."

"They're destroying farms, they're losing valuable tropical timbers. They really need to slow this uncontrolled deforestation."

In some of the hardest-hit areas of Malaysia, private and public offices and schools have been closed. Some airline flights have also been canceled due to poor visibility.

But despite the poor air conditions, a golf tournament in Kuala Lumpur went as scheduled.

"Generally, the players have taken it very well," said tournament director Vallen Tan. Players have been told that masks are available if they feel the need.

Most golfers, however, declined the offer.