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Experts: No easy solution to Indonesian haze problem

Source:  Copyright 2007, Agence France-Presse
Date:  April 21, 2007
Original URL: Status DEAD

THERE is no easy solution to the Indonesian haze which has blighted Southeast Asia every year for the past decade, a United Nations-backed conference on climate change was told yesterday.

Experts said the problem, largely caused by using fire to clear land for agriculture, is not simply about preserving the environment but also involves addressing poverty and changing traditional practices.

Smoggy haze from the fires on Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan regions sent air pollution levels in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to unhealthy levels several times last year."It is not just an environment problem," said Loh Ah Tuan, chief executive of Singapore's National Environment Agency.

"It is a social, political and economic problem. And if we try to force an environment solution to a problem such as this, I don't think we can get an answer," he told delegates on the final day of the Business Summit for the Environment.

More than 600 executives and environment experts attended the two-day gathering which discussed how global business can help lessen the impact of climate change. Loh said the Singapore government is formulating a master plan with Indonesia's Jambi province on how to fight the recurring haze in part of Jambi, on Sumatra island.

If successful, this model could be duplicated in other parts of Jambi, Loh said results can only be achieved in a few years' time.

This "grassroots" approach aims to complement other measures taken by the Indonesian government, he said.

Raman Letchumanan, head of the environment and disaster management unit at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) secretariat, said "this is a livelihood issue... it is a fight against tradition and poverty".

Budidaya, Jambi's forestry chief, outlined the enormity of the task, pointing out that Jambi alone has a total land area of 5.1 million hectares, with 2.2 million hectares of forest.

Farmers clear the land the cheapest way they can because of poverty and unemployment. High costs are also forcing many plantation firms to use fire to clear vast tracts of land and dispose of wood residue, Budidaya added.

Brad Sanders, head of fire safety at Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited, a developer of fibre plantations, said companies should be willing to spend money to clear the land instead of using a slash-and-burn method.

The key to preventing fires is not to use fire, he said.

But Sanders agreed poverty was among the root causes.

He identified small farmers, illegal plantation developers, and plantation companies which cannot afford mechanical means of clearing the land as the main sources of the burn-offs.

Indonesia's government has outlawed land-clearing by fire, but weak enforcement means the ban is largely ignored.

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