Indonesia to Crack Down on Fires Set to Clear Land

From Associated Press

With hundreds of blazes on the Indonesian island of Sumatra casting haze across much of Southeast Asia, the government on Friday said it would crack down on farmers and loggers using fire to clear land.

The government said it will confiscate the license of any plantation owner or logger caught using fire as a cheap--but illegal--method of clearing land for planting.

“Anyone involved in the burning should be punished,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab said. “We will do whatever we can . . . to overcome the problem.”

In 1997, fires across the Indonesian archipelago produced a huge cloud of smog that paralyzed the region for months, harming tourism and threatening the health of millions of people in much of Southeast Asia.

During the rule of former President Suharto, the fires were allowed to rage unchecked because many of the owners of logging companies and palm oil plantations had close ties with officials in his administration.


But the blazes severely undermined international confidence in Suharto, who was ousted in 1998 amid public protests.

It was unclear how effective President Abdurrahman Wahid’s new Cabinet--Indonesia’s first freely elected government in 44 years--would be in combating the fires.

Though clouds of smoke have blanketed much of Southeast Asia over the last few days, Shihab said the pollution has not damaged relations with neighboring countries.

On Friday in Singapore, the Pollution Standards Index ranged from 26 to 45, a level considered not harmful.

That figure was down from 76 three days earlier.

A reading of 50 or below is considered good, while higher than 50 is moderate and above 100 is considered harmful.

Still, Singaporean meteorologists said the threat was far from over, as the seasonal monsoon winds are expected to change direction in the next few weeks--blowing the smoke directly across the tiny island city-state.

Indonesia’s Riau province, where many of the fires were burning, is close to Singapore.

The city-state’s environment minister, Lee Yock Suan, said this year’s haze could be as bad as that of 1997.