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Indonesian Fires Cloud Future of Southeast Asia

Environment: Toxic smoke from blazes set to clear land afflicts 70 million. Region's economic health is also at risk.


HANOI — The sun has not been seen for days over large parts of Southeast Asia. The sky has seemingly disappeared. Temperatures hover in the 90s, but it feels hotter. People are coughing, rubbing their eyes, wearing masks, driving with their car lights on in the daytime.

And still the fires that Indonesian companies initially set to clear land for palm-oil and pulp plantations burn on, out of control now, engulfing more than 70 million people in a gray haze of thick pollutants and raising concerns that the region's obsession with economic growth has come at a huge cost to the environment.

The fires have been burning for weeks and by Wednesday had eaten up more than 750,000 acres of Indonesian bush land on the drought-stricken islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and Java.

Pushed by autumn winds across the Strait of Malacca, the blanket of smog-like haze stretches across large sections of Indonesia and Brunei to Malaysia and Singapore--a region that is tinder-dry because of a severe drought brought on by the weather phenomenon known as El Nino.

In its wake, two people have died in Indonesia of respiratory problems, thousands have fallen sick, health emergencies have been declared in some cities, with residents warned not to venture outside their homes, and some regional airports have closed.

"From my hotel, it looked like gray mist was rising from the Sarawak River," said a recent American traveler to Kuching, a city in Borneo. "The problem was that what I was seeing wasn't mist rising. It was particulate matter falling."

"This is certainly by far the worst [pollution] episode that's ever been experienced in this region," said Steve Tamplin, a World Health Organization environmental engineer.

With the pollution index rising to dangerous levels, factories and schools closed in Kuching, and Malaysia Airlines scheduled extra flights to carry a crush of people out earlier this week. The Kuching Hilton registered 160 cancellations. The pollution index hit 700 on Sunday.

In the United States, where the Pollutants Standards Index--a measure of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in the air--seldom tops 100, a reading of 300 is deemed sufficiently hazardous to result in warnings that people should remain indoors with their windows and doors closed. A level of 400 indicates emergency conditions that could lead to premature death of ill and elderly people, Environmental Protection Agency officials said.

"Whole sections of Kuala Lumpur have simply disappeared from view," said a Western diplomat in the Malaysian capital. "People have had terrible headaches. Your chest tightens up, making it difficult to breathe. There's great fatigue. Last Friday, you could taste the air. It tasted like smoke and tar exhaust. My tongue felt oily."

There are growing fears that the situation could worsen if huge tracts of volatile peat underneath Indonesia's rain forests catch fire, because peat burns for a long time, forestry officials say.

Jeffrey Sayer, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research near Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, said peat is already burning in one forest. He said there are still peat fires burning in Indonesia that began during the last severe drought in 1982-83.

Wednesday, John R. Malott, U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, acting on the recommendation of the State Department's medical division, took the extraordinary step of permitting embassy personnel to leave the country. Those remaining at the post will be rotated in and out of the country to minimize health threats, he said.

The ecological nightmare comes at a time when Southeast Asia is reeling from instability in its stock and currency markets.

Western analysts say it is too early to determine what, if any, long-range political and economic fallout may result from the man-made crisis.

But repercussions could be substantial, particularly to the images of countries with go-go economies that have staked their prestige on providing a work environment that is efficient, modern and hassle-free.

Malaysia, which wants to challenge Singapore as the region's premier business hub, sells itself with the slogan "Malaysia Can."

That message is not reinforced when expatriates are sending their families home, tour groups are canceling trips, the price of fish and agricultural products is going up and electronics factories that need a clean operating environment are reconsidering the wisdom of their investment.

The pollution index hit 266 last week in Singapore and has averaged 226 the last four days in Kuala Lumpur.

The conditions have threatened Indonesia's rice and coffee crops and caused considerable grumbling even in Malaysia's state-controlled media over the inaction of the Malaysian government.

"We have a right to clean air!" a Page 1 cartoon in a Kuala Lumpur newspaper said.

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