Washington Times, March 6, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Widespread forest fires on the island of Borneo are threatening Southeast Asia with a repeat of last year’s disastrous haze shroud, which a new study estimates cost the region nearly $1.4 billion.

The fires are concentrated in the Indonesian section of the island, known as Kalimantan. Similar blazes last year consumed more than 4 million acres of rain forest and wood plantations in Kalimantan and the neighboring island of Sumatra.

The resulting shroud of haze settled over much of Southeast Asia, forcing as many as a million people to seek medical treatment for respiratory problems. The smoke also contributed to the crash of a commercial airliner, the collision of two ferries and countless road accidents, which together claimed hundreds of lives.

“Because of the current drought, the dry season isn’t expected to end until July, so the potential for fires this year is much worse than in 1997,” warned Longana Ginting of Walhi, an alliance of Indonesian environmental groups.

Satellite monitoring has pinpointed “hundreds” of new hot spots indicating forest fires, according to a German-sponsored Indonesian forest fire management project. Most of the fires are believed to be set by logging concessions and small farmers.

“It’s a cheap way to clear the land – that’s the bottom line,” said Ron Lilley of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Jakarta office. “But the cost of the damage done to others far exceeds the savings to them.”

That cost to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore was at least $1.384 billion, according to a study released recently by the WWF and the Singapore-based Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA). The biggest portion of that went to short-term health costs. Industrial production and the tourist industry also were hard hit.

“Indonesia could have used its lost resources to provide basic sanitation, water and sewage services for 40 million people, or about one-third of the rural poor,” said EEPSEA Director David Glover.

Singapore and Malaysia have expressed their concern about the renewed fires, which have already interfered with flights at Indonesian airports in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

With President Suharto looking to those countries for support in his problems with the International Monetary Fund, the potential fallout from another pall of haze takes on new significance.

“Here he is proclaiming ASEAN solidarity because he wants their financial and diplomatic support, and meanwhile his greedy buddies are sending up a cloud of smoke that is going to choke their citizens,” said a Western diplomat.

ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

As they struggle with the country’s recent economic collapse, Indonesian officials claim they lack the resources to effectively fight the renewed outbreak. Merely $125,000 so far has been allocated to fight the fires, the government said recently.

“A lack of coordination between local government agencies is to blame for the delays in fighting the fires,” charged Maj. Gen. Adang Ruchiatna, deputy chairman of the National Disaster Management Board.

While the government reportedly has compiled a list of logging firms believed responsible for many of last year’s fires, to date no action has been taken against them.

Environmentalists fear the latest fires could permanently devastate the rich ecosystem of the jungle, including a major national park that is home to orangutans and other endangered species, and threaten the surrounding ocean.

“If another fire goes through areas already burned, then what little wildlife is left, what little soil there is to hold things together, will disappear completely. Runoff and sedimentation increase and, because of the sheer quantity, it could wash far out to sea, destroying coral reefs,” warned the WWF’s Mr. Lilley.

“The orangutan is already under heavy threat from forest clearing and hunting,” added Barita Manullang, a WWF orangutan expert. “These fires may well be the final push toward extinction.”

Indonesian activists question why the country’s reforestation fund, believed to contain tens of millions of dollars collected from timber companies, is not being used to fight the fires.

IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus recently pointed to the fund, which the government had diverted to finance a national car project, as an example of Indonesia’s lack of “transparency.”

“Now, after the IMF got them to kill the national car, they’ve taken this money and put it right into the state budget, so it has again disappeared,” complained Walhi’s Mr. Ginting.

The recently released figures do not take into account long-term health damage or direct damage to timber and biodiversity resources, which could equal the price tag of the haze, according to the study. Nor do they include losses in other countries affected by the haze, such as Brunei and Thailand.

As Indonesia wrestles with its current economic crisis, experts watching this latest environmental disaster unfold are frustrated and fatalistic.

“Biodiversity issues are a bit of a non-starter in the midst of all this,” Mr. Lilley said. “When millions are losing their jobs, it’s very hard to make people see that these issues are important.


Photo, A forest ranger directs traffic through smoke as a fire approaches the road in the Bukit Suharto National Park in east Kalimantan on Feb. 28. The new fires raise health and economic concerns with Indonesia’s neighbors., By Reuters


Copyright Washington Times Library Mar 6, 1998

By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to ForeignPolicy.com, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at pintak.com. His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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