Albion Monitor /News

Indonesia Haze Exposes Past Enviro Sins

by Johanna Son

and related article in this topic
(IPS) MANILA -- The choking haze that has shrouded large parts of Southeast Asia for months now may well be the penance that Indonesia is doing for its past environmental sins.

The haze, caused by forest fires burning in Indonesia's Kalimantan and Sumatra islands, has caused health problems across the region, dented tourism, hurt precious wildlife and damaged food sources in affected areas.

Indonesia is viewed as the main culprit in this environmental crisis, but the transboundary problem holds lessons as well for neighboring countries preoccupied with fast-paced growth.

Clearly, it shows that growth that runs roughshod over the environment lays a country open to crises that erode economic gains.

When people abuse nature in the name of progress, this comes back to haunt them, say tribal and religious elders in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, which was badly affected by the haze. "The smog is an early warning to stop destroying nature," a Muslim leader was quoted as saying recently.

Jakarta was forced to apologize and admit -- for the first time -- that the fires were caused by timber companies that had long been flouting rules against clearing land by fire
In Indonesia, the bulk of forest fires have been traced to timber and plantation companies that clear land by burning, which is the cheapest method of doing so. Many were being cleared to prepare for the expansion of plantations of timber, rubber, palm oil and other commercial crops.

The country has gone full steam ahead into palm oil plantations, not only because of the high prices of palm oil in the international market, but also because of its aim to surpass Malaysia as the world's largest producer of palm oil by 2005.

Total area of palm oil plantations has jumped nearly four-fold from 1985 to the present 2.2 million hectares. More than 3 million more hectares are projected to be planted over the next few years.

Plantations of timber and industrial pulpwood are also expanding rapidly, as firms opt to reduce reliance on natural forests and grow their own resources instead. Indonesia also hopes to become a major exporter of pulp and paper.

The same factors have triggered five major bouts with forests fires since 1982. But this year's fires have been aggravated by unusually dry conditions due to the El Nino weather phenomenon, which meant that fires started and spread much faster.

At the height of the haze last month, clouds of dust and acrid smoke spread not only to Malaysia and Singapore but to parts of Thailand and the Philippines. In the Philippines, haze took on another name, "smaze," a combination of smoke and haze.

The Indonesian environment group WALHI says the government has long ignored the need to curb the fires and to rein in big business and plantation firms, many of which are also politically powerful.

For years, the Indonesian government has blamed slash-and-burn farmers for the fires. As this year's fires raged, it at first heaped the blame on El Nino. Indonesia's timber barons also pointed a finger at the weather disturbance, denying they were to blame.

But as neighboring countries began pressuring Jakarta to act, it was forced to apologize and admit -- for the first time -- that the fires were caused by timber companies that had long been flouting rules against clearing land by fire. Satellite pictures confirmed this fact.

Unlike big firms that can clear scores of hectares at a time, small farmers engaged in slash and burn cultivation are usually able to burn less than two hectares at a time, activists say.

"How can they be responsible for the forest fires that covered three million hectares in 1992, or one million hectares for the current fire?" WALHI's Arimibi Heroepoetri told IPS. "We believe the fires are due to forest mismanagement," she added. (One million hectares roughly equals 4,000 square miles.)

Meantime, Southeast Asians are waiting for monsoon rains to ease the fires. Indonesian officials now say the lessons are clear. "If we don't change our ways, we won't survive as a nation, all right? I hope by this time it's clear to everybody," a meteorological spokesperson said this week.

The fires were worsened by the draining of marshlands in Kalimantan, which the government had ordered to be turned into land for growing cash crops.

There are other signs of environmental strain in Indonesia. Heroepoetri says some parts of the country that never used to get floods now experience them, another sign of overexploitation of forests.

Asian governments have heavily subsidized extractive industries such as mining and logging
As the fires raged, the haze they produced was worsened by pollution in neighboring countries, which came face to face with the costs of their own environmental problems. Pollution from industry and vehicle emissions combined with the haze, sending air quality alarms soaring and people grabbing for their masks and scurrying indoors.

After all, Asia is already one of the world's most polluted regions, where the momentum of development, infrastructure construction and export growth have often outpaced concern for the environment.

Southeast Asian countries have their own problems trying to strike a balance between development and environment, be it in the clearing of jungle to make way for a dam project in Malaysia, the cutting down of forests to put up palm oil plantations in Thailand, or the destruction of mangroves for aquaculture to bring in foreign exchange.

Often, the environment has been left out, or shunted aside, in the development equation. Indeed, Asia's performance in the environmental side has lagged behind its economic progress.

Its natural resources are being depleted rapidly and "deforestation rates are highest in Southeast Asia," says "Emerging Asia," a report released by the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) earlier this year.

During the last 30 years of breakneck growth, Asia has lost 50 percent of its forest cover and 50 percent of its fish stock.

As the AsDB report said: "Asian governments have heavily subsidized extractive industries such as mining and logging, as well as polluting inputs, such as energy and agrochemicals. Thus they have harmed both the environment and their long-term growth prospects."

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Albion Monitor October 20, 1997 (

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