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Fires Again Ravage Indonesia's Forests

Asia: Farmers, timber companies set blazes to clear land. Haze threatens region already in economic crisis.


SAMARINDA, Indonesia — The man-made Indonesian fires that blanketed Southeast Asia last autumn with clouds of choking haze are burning again, raising the specter that another environmental disaster looms just ahead.

When that earlier haze--a regional euphemism for fire-caused pollution--swept over Southeast Asia, it closed airports, crippled tourism and caused serious health problems. Now, in every direction, flames and tufts of smoke are rising from the scorched and smoldering earth, and, acre by acre, one of the world's last great rain forests is being eaten away, leaving one German forest-management expert to comment: "We are at the point of no return."

On Sunday, the Suara Pembaruan newspaper in the capital, Jakarta, reported that smoke from the fires has caused 297 cases of pneumonia and that two people have died.

Here on the road to Balikpapan, the flames are no bigger than those from the coals of a barbecue grill, but they have given the drought-ravaged land an eerie reddish glow and, whipped to and fro by hot, heavy winds, have crept to the very doorstep of Omar Kamorusn's one-room wooden home.

"Of course I worry we will burn," he said. "But what can we do to stop it? Our nearest water is an hour's walk. My only equipment is a rake and shovel. But this is nothing new. We have fires every year. They are how we live."

If he didn't set fires, the 46-year-old Kamorusn said, there would be no way to clear the land for his crops of rice and peppercorn. He knows that the government has forbidden burning, but his family has been doing it for generations. And, when the land is less dry, the fires can be controlled with ditches and firebreaks.

He added, "If we do not burn, we do not eat."

In Samarinda, German environmentalists tracking the brush fires through satellite images have pinpointed 1,000 blazes here on the island of Borneo. Some were set by peasant farmers such as Kamorusn. But the majority, the Germans say, are on land leased by powerful timber companies--many with ties to the top levels of the Indonesian government--that still use slash-and-burn techniques as the fastest, cheapest way to convert rain forests into timber estates and palm-oil plantations.

Indonesia has more than 10% of the world's rain forests, and 40% of Asia's. And each year, says the international environmental organization Earth Action, the nation is destroying an area larger than Lebanon. Only Brazil's rain forests are disappearing at a faster rate.

One of the world's largest exporters of wood products, Indonesia desperately needs its logging income, particularly with its current economic crisis. Although the government has forbidden clearing land by fire, and some government officials have shown concern about the impact of fire and haze, the timber companies' links to the regime of President Suharto make corrective action difficult.

"The government has the exact coordinates of every fire and would like to make an example by closing down one of the companies," said Ludwig Shindler, a German fire-management expert. "But a lot of companies are protected and can't be touched, for obvious reasons."

Last year, 160 Indonesian companies were accused of culpability. Only 46 were fully investigated, and only five will be prosecuted. In Malaysia, the government fined 17 companies for ignoring a no-burn policy. Their collective penalty amounted to $8,000.

Among the companies accused last year of torching Indonesia's East Kalimantan province on Borneo was a subsidiary of Astra International, which is run by Mohammed "Bob" Hasan, Indonesia's timber tycoon and a member of Suharto's new Cabinet. He rejected criticism that the timber companies have been reckless.

"We want to develop our country on a sustainable basis," Hasan told the BBC. "But sometimes, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] come in and say you are violating environmental rules . . . human rights." He rejected the accusations as the work of Communists.

The latest outbreak of fires, coming after last year's blazes were finally extinguished by seasonal rains, raises the threat that Southeast Asia, already laboring under a regionwide economic downturn, will have to endure another season of debilitating haze. It is a threat that could have political as well as economic repercussions.

Towns around Samarinda are already on red alert, and some days the haze is thick enough to close roads and reduce visibility to 60 feet. The Malaysian city of Kuching on Borneo recorded an air pollution index reading of 400 recently--four times what is considered unhealthy. When the prevailing winds blow toward the north in April or May, the haze could again be blown into Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines and peninsular Malaysia.

Malaysia is especially concerned. It has invested $520 million to host the Commonwealth Games in September, and a repeat of last year's haze could keep tourists away in droves and result in health problems for athletes.

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