the vast curtain of smog that has enveloped six countries in Southeast Asia has, ironically, uncovered the ground realities of the economic boom of the region that had become a phenomenon by itself. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore -- the "Tiger economies" of the region -- have been cowed down by an aerial soup comprising smoke from burning forests in Indonesia, toxins, carcinogens, and ash. The present crisis has been brought about by a blatant disregard for environmental norms.
Government authorities have been known to blame small-scale farmers who slash-and-burn little tracts of forest for clearing land for the fires. The fires have been aggravated by El Nio, the change in weather patterns induced by weakening of trade winds that lead to warming of the equatorial South Pacific Ocean. It has brought about severe drought conditions in Indonesia this year and delayed rainfall. But El Nio and slash-and-burn farming are not new to the region. Small-scale farmers set fire to little stretches of forests to clear land for cultivation every year during summer. This is the cheapest way of clearing forests and rains in September usually douse the flames. The haze that follows is also an annual event. In the past, such fires have gone out of control during drought years but the magnitude of this year's crisis is unprecedented.
Satellite pictures have revealed that the fires were at their worst where the plantation and timber industries are concentrated. These industries have been the beneficiaries of the warped policies of the government. Environmental groups in Indonesia and Malaysia have pointed out that fires started by plantation workers are more to blame for the present crisis than farmers who, through years of experience, have learned how to control the fires set by them.
The forest fires have had disastrous consequences. The smog has spread to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, The Philippines and Thailand, affecting a population of 70 million people. Fires in the Indonesian provinces of Sumatra, Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of the Borneo island), Sulawesi, Irian Jaya, and Java have already gutted 300,000 ha of forests, estimates Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, Indonesian state minister for environment. World Wide Fund of Nature (wwf) has put the figure at 600,000 to 800,000 ha while the forest ministry quotes 70,000 ha.
Figures and estimates might vary, but the fires and the consequent smog are -- even by conservative estimates -- one of the worst-ever human-made ecological disasters of the world. More than 40,000 people have sought medical help and hospitalisation in Indonesia and Malaysia for smog-related respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis since August. At least five deaths have been linked to unhealthy air. More than 8,000 fire fighters have been battling the blaze for the last two months. But this has proved extremely difficult. Malaysia has sent help in the form of 1,500 fire fighters. Numerous offers of assistance have come from the international community -- Japan and Australia in particular.
The efforts are beginning to show results with the number of hot spots reducing. Reports that the fires have started abating in the first week of October were received from several agencies such as the us National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa) through its satellite imaging and Indonesia's National Institute of Aeronautics and Space. Sporadic rains have suppressed the smog in some areas.
As the number of hot spots has declined, visibility has improved at some airports. However, the problem has not been overcome. Thick smog continues to blanket several areas, especially Jambi, south Sumatra, Bengkulu, west Sumatra and south Kalimantan. The smog was reportedly one of the factors that led to the death of 234 people aboard the Indonesian Garuda Airlines a -300 Airbus jetliner that crashed just before landing at Buah Nabar, 32 km southwest of Medan, the capital of Sumatra on September 26. Though the cause of the crash has not been established and miscommunication between the pilot and the air traffic control is being blamed, heavy smog at the runway would certainly have added to the confusion in the cockpit.
Poor visibility due to the smog also caused at least three collisions at sea. In the first mishap, 29 Indians died when the Indian cargo ship icl Vickraman sank after colliding with a Panamanian vessel on September 28 in the Strait of Malacca, perhaps the busiest stretch of sea in the world. In another collision between a motorboat carrying 48 students and a freighter on the Musi river in south Sumatra, nine students were killed.Seven boat accidents have been reported in Kalimantan's Mahakam river, Kusumaatmadja told the press at his residence recently. Cars and motorcycles in most of the smoke-affected areas have to put their lights on even during the day to avoid accidents.
But these are only the indirect effects of the smog that has been choking much of Southeast Asia. Air quality in Malaysia suffered heavily as winds blew a lot of smoke from the forest fires to the country in September. In the first week of October, a change in wind direction swept back some of the smog from Malaysia to Indonesia. The Indonesian government had declared a state of emergency in the province of Sarawak after conditions became drastic. This was revoked after 10 days. The air pollution index (api , a system of measuring the level of pollution, devised by the Environmental Protection Agency of the us), in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, soared to 851 at 1 pm on September 19. A count of up to 200 on the api is considered "unhealthy"; 200-300 is "very unhealthy"; and 300-500 is considered "hazardous". This is the first time in human history that such a large population has been exposed to such high levels of pollution for such a long period. Health officials say that exposure to pollution levels of 200-300 for a day is equi-valent to smoking at least 20 cigarettes a day.
Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad made a public appearance wearing a mask as protection against the smog. Pictures of people - especially children - wearing masks flooded the media. Indonesian health minister Sujudi said that wet masks were being distributed to prevent dust and particles from entering the body. The minister also urged people to stay at home and not venture outside for the time being to protect themselves from the smog, which contains among other chemicals, sulphur dioxide (so2), nitrogen oxide (nox), carbon monoxide (co) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (pahs) that are produced when trees and undergrowth are burned. Experts question the effectiveness of cloth masks as prevention from these. The only masks that are effective look like World War ii gas masks - too heavy and too expensive.
The health consequences of the smog can hardly be over-emphasised. Physicians say that the smog would lead to a wide range of ailments such as lung and heart diseases, reduced fertility, damage to the nervous system, blood cells and kidneys. pah s are carcinogens. Scientists may not be able to ascertain their life-shortening capacity for the next 30 years. In cities, the smog mixes with pollutants from industry and cars, making the air much more dangerous. The health risks rise alarmingly in the case of children who inhale more toxic substances in relation to their body weight than adults. Many people will die prematurely, say experts. The long-term consequences of the smog can easily be left to the imagination till they are assessed in entirety.
The forest fires and the smog are expected to take a heavy toll on the ecology of the region. Around 1,800 wild elephants in Riau forests, Sumatra, are reported to be facing food shortage and respiratory problems due to the drought and the haze. Wild animals, including tigers and elephants, have fled their habitats, entered villages, and attacked locals. The Indonesian government has urged people not to kill the bewildered animals. Sumatra is home to the endangered tiger, the Asiatic elephant, the orang-utan, the Sumatran rhino, and the Malaysian tapir. Borneo is habitat of orang-utans, gibbons, and the Sumatran rhinos.
Insects and frogs, important links in the forest food web, have very little resistance to high temperatures. Chris Majors, an Australian zoologist, says the fires have made the forests unsafe for animals to live and have hastened their extinction.
Protected forests gutted by the fires include East Kalimantan's Kutan national park, southern Sumatra's Way Kambas elephant habitat, Irian Jaya's Lorentz national park, which has been declared a World Natural Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (unesco), and East Kalimantan's Tanjung Puting orang-utan rehabilitation centre.
In the Bukit Suharto nature reserve, fires are reported to have affected over 3,000 ha. But, in this case, the cause is mostly natural as under the forest's peat (partly decomposed vegetation due to wet, acid conditions in swamps), coals are burning eternally. The Indonesian government failed to stop the underground coal from burning.
The loss in biological diversity is also believed to be enormous. A French environmentalist says it needs at least 50 years for the forests to grow again. Moist forests in northern Borneo contain some of the richest rainforests on Earth. Near the Brunei/Sarawak border, scientists have identified more tree species in a single hectare than have been identified over much of Eastern North America. In one hectare, one can find several genera of trees with more than a dozen species, a pattern unusual in other parts of the tropics.
The fires threaten a wealth of ecological resources and the socio-economic structure of settlements in the region, through decreased forest productivity and decline in food production. A plethora of microorganisms that are essential to the biological cycle of the forests have also been destroyed by the blazes.
Experts predict that the long-term impacts of the forest fires are potentially more threatening than the oil fires in Kuwait during the Gulf War and will extend well beyond the realms of human well-being. What has alarmed environmentalists the most is the spread of fires in peat forests. Peat swamp forests are waterlogged forests growing on a layer of dead leaves and plant material up to 20 metres thick. Their continued survival depends on a naturally high water level which prevents the soil from drying out to expose the highly combustible coal underneath. Peat swamp forests provide a variety of goods and services, both directly and indirectly, in the form of forestry and fisheries products, energy, flood miti-gation, water supply and groundwater recharge.
The countries of Southeast Asia, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia, have more than 20 million ha - or 60 per cent of the global resource - of tropical peatlands. The fires have spread to forests covering thousands of hectares of peatlands. Fires in these peatlands are unique in that they create much more smoke per ha than other types of forest fires and are very difficult to extinguish. The fires go deep underground and can burn uncontrolled and unseen in the peat deposits for several months on end.
In the past 10 years, the incidence of major fires in the peat swamp forests of the Southeast Asian region has been increasing. In east Kalimantan, a fire that started in September 1982 lasted for 10 months and affected more than 35,000 ha. The fire followed an almost unprecedented period of drought in the region associated with El Nio, the same climatic event that is being blamed for the severity of the present situation.
The contribution of tropical peatlands to the global carbon cycle is higher than those of most temperate zones. It is estimated that 15 per cent of the global peatland carbon resides in tropical peatlands. These prolonged peat fires are releasing a massive amount of carbon dioxide and particulate matter and will contribute to global warming and long-term climate disruption.
At the annual meeting of the standing committee of the Convention on Wetlands, better known as the Ramsar convention, 27 countries from all regions of the world and four global ngos gathered in Switzerland on October 2. They expressed their grave concern at the forest fires in Indonesia. Louise Lakos, chairperson of the committee noted: "The members of this international conservation body drew attention to the fact that a large proportion of the area burning is peat swamp forest, which constitutes an important global wetland type which we cannot afford to lose. Time is short and action is needed urgently."
Though the total material loss because of the fires is not known yet, in east Kalimantan alone around 26,000 ha of the province's existing 17 million ha of forests have been charred. The cost is estimated at us $20 million. Measures to control the blazes have proved a major burden on the Indonesian exchequer. The government tried cloud-seeding in several provinces to create artificial rain. This failed as there were no clouds to seed. Besides, the cost of flying planes loaded with cloud-seeding substances was too high.
In Indonesia this year, drought conditions have made crops fail. Moreover, the blanket of smog has blocked out sunlight. This will adversely affect agricultural produce - especially that of paddy, which is the staple food crop of the region, and palm-oil, one of the most important exports of Indonesia amounting to us $1 billion. Both paddy and palm require steady sunlight. Production of rubber, fruit, vegetables and other crops will also be affected.
The damage to business due to the fires and smog is constantly growing. Southeast Asia is one of the most important tourist destinations of the world. Now, after the fire, tour operators in Europe and the us have been busy reimbursing money to holiday-makers for cancelled trips as governments have advised citizens to stay away from the region. Flight cancellations by the hundreds due to poor visibility on runways have not helped either.
Industrial output has also taken a beating as factories scaled down production with workers staying home to avoid the harmful smog. A lot of transnational companies and embassies have been evacuating their personnel from the smog-affected countries. For the region's economy, which has been experiencing unprecedented problems with currency trading in the last few months, the timing of the fires and the smog could not have been more damaging. But the cause of the forest fires is deeply linked to the economic policies of the region - in particular Indonesia.
When Indonesian president Suharto offered his apologies to his neighbouring countries at a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (asean), he blamed the extreme drought conditions induced by El Nio. It is a natural disaster, he said. He did not accept the blame for having caused the fires or for reacting too late and letting the fires get out of hand. asean has traditionally been known for good neighbourly relations and non-interference. But the media across the world has not been as kind to the Indonesian government and the plantation industry, who are accountable for most of the damage - if not all.
A report from central Kalimantan said that land clearing activities in plantations by setting fires have doubled since 1996 in the province.A local police official said the slash-and-burn practices were conducted by irresponsible people from plantation companies dealing with palm-oil, rubber, pulp for paper, and timber. The companies are the symbols of industrialisation and economic boom of the region. Government subsidies and encouragement to them amount to appeasement of their methods that are more often than not in violation of environmental norms. Setting fire to the forest is the quickest, cheapest way to clear land for plantations. Useful trees are logged before the blaze starts. The effects are devastating, as the world community is learning and as Southeast Asia has known for a long time.
A ban was imposed on burning forests in 1995 in Indonesia after a particularly severe spell of haze. But there is always a way around regulations if you know the right people in the right places. Mohamad "Bob" Hasan is one of the biggest timber barons of the country and is reported to be very close to president Suharto - in fact his golf partner. Other plantation and timber concerns are also reasonably well-connected to the corridors of power. "Bob" recently announced the allocation of a us $5.8 million fund to help put out the fires. He also insisted that timber companies were not prima-rily to blame for the fires.
However, a group of Indonesian students and artists blamed big timber companies for the fires and denounced the companies for providing only token assistance to extinguish the fires. The Indonesian Rupiah 20 billion (us $5.8 million) allocated by the companies to fight the fires was tiny when compared with the huge profits collected by the companies by exploiting Indonesia's forests, they said. "The amount is very small when you consider how much of the country's wealth has been robbed by the timber companies," said Sopandi, a painter.
The pace of plantation development is such that the forestry ministry is little more than a bystander. A 1990 World Bank report said that half of all forestry ministry staff were stationed in Java, which accounts for less than two per cent of all forested land of the country. Moreover, officials trying to enforce the ban on starting fires can be bribed.
But the government has taken some action. The forestry ministry has imposed sanctions on 29 concession holders for burning forests to clear land. Soemarsono, the ministry's head of forest protection and nature conservation, said 151 forest exploitation permits held by 29 companies - including five state-owned - were revoked for failing to prove that they had not used the slash-and-burn method to clear land for their projects.
On October 3, agriculture minister Sjarifudin Bahrasjah summoned 14 other plantation companies that have been allegedly clearing land by slash-and-burn. He promised to take stern measure if the companies were found guilty. Earlier, the government had identified 176 companies that were accused of using the slash-and-burn method. They were given 15 days to report and prove that they did not set fires. Later, 110 companies submitted their reports denying the allegation.
In the meantime, attorney general Singgih called on law enforcers to participate actively in the country's efforts to deal with the problem. According to law no 4/1982 and government regulation no 28/1995 on the environment, polluters and environmental destroyers can face imprisonment for ten years and a fine of Rp 100 million (around us $35,000).
Sudibyakto, head of the Centre for Study of Natural Disaster of the Gajah Mada University, Yogyakarta, central Java, said the government has been somehow late in reacting to the forest fires as data on forest fire hot spots was available in May 1997. Agreeing on considering the fires a national disaster, he said "the disaster is not fully due to natural causes because human acts have made the condition worse".
J R E Harger is a unesco marine scientist who had been monitoring El Nio behaviour when he was posted in Indonesia for more than 10 years till 1995. He had pointed out in 1994 that El Nio, which is a relatively predictable event, was a serious problem for Indonesia as it can threaten its food security. "There is a need to concentrate on efforts to improve the country's capability to forecast weather through a more integrated programme," said Harger, who is now posted at the unesco headquarters in Paris.
Meanwhile, the state environment minister Kusumaat-madja said recommendations were being drawn up to deal with the weather patterns influenced by El Nio. "Weather is king. We have to be ready and adjust ourselves to its pattern. Not the other way around," he said. Indonesia would do well to learn from Australia, which was once badly affected by El Nio but is well prepared to face El Nio this year.
Weather forecasts by Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, the country's only source of weather forecast, has never played any role of significance. Weather is generally pleasant in Indonesia which has only two seasons - summers and the rainy season. Weather forecast has never been considered important as most of the time any body can go out without having to fear violent weather conditions such as storms. "It is important to realise now that if we ignore environment-related information and meteorological data, the consequences can be fatal," said Kusumaatmadja.
The Indonesian government would do well to heed to meteorological data and environmental ngos. In a television interview, "Bob" Hasan described criticism of plantation and timber industry as the work of unprofessional journalists and ngos run by former communists. If people are known by the company they keep, president Suharto needs some serious image-building. And if lessons from the present crisis are not well taken, the fires, which are still burning in many parts of Indonesia, and the smog may return next year. What needs to be cleaned first is the smog that surrounds Indonesia's industrial and environmental policies.
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