Rush for profit ignites Indonesia Fires set to clear land destroy habitat, choke area with haze

March 16, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAMARINDA, Indonesia -- Borneo is burning again.

Just months after blazes in Indonesia sent a devastating cloud of smoke across much of Southeast Asia, flames have blanketed )) much of the island's drought-stricken east coast with a haze so thick that planes can land only a few hours a day and visibility so poor that boat captains cannot navigate the rivers.

The effect is surreal here along the equator. Children kick soccer balls through piles of fallen leaves as though it were autumn -- a season that doesn't exist on Borneo. The sky is so heavy with smoke that it appears about to snow even though the temperature is 90 degrees.

"This is a national disaster," says Soesatyo Ardjoyuwono, head of Indonesia's Center for Forestry Extension, who sought advice here last week from visiting foreign experts on firefighting.

Since January, the fires have burned more than 160,000 acres in eastern Borneo -- a tropical island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

The flames are decimating the habitat of proboscis monkeys and driving orangutans into villages where they are often killed and their offspring sold as pets.

Last week, a female orangutan holding a baby attacked a farmer trying to put out a fire. Another farmer beat the orangutan to death with a machete and club, according to a local newspaper.

"It's an enormous threat," says Carey Yeager, senior conservation biologist for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Indonesia. "It may push some species that are on the brink to extinction."

The only silver lining to the haze is that it seems unlikely to plague the region immediately, though that could change after the dry season comes in the spring.

Current wind patterns and rain in other fire-prone areas of Indonesia should keep the smoke from spreading for the time being, says Hartmut Abberger, who works for a German-Indonesian fire management project here.

The story behind the haze is a familiar one in much of Asia, where the rush for development and profit is destroying the environment and damaging health.

Fire officials say nearly all the blazes were set, usually to clear land for agriculture. Small-scale farmers light fires to plant crops while large companies burn sections of the rain forest to develop palm oil plantations and log timber.

Fires have raged in Indonesia for years, but a severe drought and changing wind patterns caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon worsened the problem in 1997 and made it an international issue.

Last summer and fall, fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo sent a cloud of smoke across Southeast Asia that closed airports and schools, made an estimated 45,000 people ill and caused more than $1.3 billion in damage to health and tourism.

It also strained relations between Indonesia and its neighbors, Malaysia and Singapore. The government could not control the fires, which abated only after rain began falling in November.

This month, the nation's outgoing environmental minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, warned that Indonesia could face trade sanctions if it does not solve the problem.

"If we don't take it seriously this time, the international community will only know us as lawbreakers," the Jakarta Post quoted him as saying.

The fires are so numerous -- one day last week satellite photos showed more than 400 in Indonesia's province of East Kalimantan -- and infrastructure so limited that fighting them on a large scale is practically impossible.

The fire management project has opted to develop village firefighting teams and educational programs to persuade people burn more carefully -- a strategy they acknowledge will take many years to have an impact.

Burning has been a part of the culture of Borneo for centuries, and the economic incentives to set fires are overwhelming.

"It's part of cultivation in the tropics, not only in Asia, but in Africa," says Abberger, who has spent 2 1/2 years working on the project in East Kalimantan. "Fire is the cheapest way to clear land."

The problem has worsened in the past two decades as corporations have rushed to exploit Borneo's rich resources. Yet, cracking down on timber and plantation companies is not easy in Indonesia.

Businesses have close connections to the government, public corruption is rampant and the regime has based much of its legitimacy on rapid economic development.

The government has suspended company licenses and fined some firms. Last month, the management project videotaped fires on timber concessions and palm oil plantations. A local newspaper published the names of the companies, and police are prosecuting 40 businesses.

The fires are returning as 76-year-old President Suharto begins his seventh five-year term and faces the nation's worst economic crisis in three decades.

Corruption, cronyism and a weak banking system have triggered a financial meltdown that has sent the value of the nation's currency, the rupiah, plunging and left many companies unable to pay overseas debts and technically bankrupt.

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