Published: Wednesday 31 December 1997

The fires that had been raging in the Indonesian forests for quite some time are slowly showing signs of decrease. Satellite pictures show many of the Indonesian fires may be nearly doused. However, the haze is spreading to other countries. The smoke has been spotted along a 6,000 km path from Darwin in northern Australia to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. The fires burning in Indonesia have endangered the health of millions of people in Southeast Asia, strained relations between Jakarta and its neighbours and earned the wrath of environmentalists around the world ( Down To Earth Vol 6, No 11).

At the same time, some previously afflicted areas, such as Singapore and peninsular Malaysia have begun to enjoy clear skies. The smoke reached Colombo in the second week of November, when visibility at Colombo airport dropped from seven kilometres to four. Doctors in Sri Lanka reported an increase in the number of complaints of sore throats.

It is felt that the smoke is expected to disperse with the arrival of the Northeast monsoon. The skies over Darwin in Australia, normally clear at the onset of summer, darkened as the haze arrived. Officials said that the situation was unlikely to worsen and there was no health risk.

Because of the haze, tourism in Indonesia has been hit. The number of foreign tourists visiting Indonesia has fallen by about 26 per cent this year. "The fall in the number of tourists is felt in all the tourist destinations of Indonesia, including Bali," said a government official. Indonesia earned US $6 million from tourists in 1996.

Estimates continue to vary on the extent of damage to the Indonesian forest land. The government puts the figure at 320,000 hectares. The country's leading environmental group, Walhi, however, says it is closer to 1.7 million hectares.

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