Following an outbreak of smog from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, on the Indonesian section of Borneo Island, environment ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) brought forward a meeting to deal with the issue. Originally planned for October in Singapore, the meeting will take place some time at the end of August.

This year’s forest fire outbreak is feared to be of a similar magnitude to the Indonesian fires that raged two years ago. Fires in 1997 and 1998 are estimated to have destroyed 24.7 million acres of forest.

The fires have been largely blamed on companies clearing forest for plantation farming, although smaller-scale farmers also use slash-and-burn techniques.

A ban by ASEAN on the use of fire for forest-clearing purposes has gone wholly unenforced. “The ASEAN zero-buring policy is not realistic, because farmers depend on fire to sustain their income,” Helmut Abberger of the Integrated Forest Fire Management Project (IFFM) in Kalimantan told edie. “They normally don’t have the money for sedentary agriculture, because the soils are poor and lots of fertilisers are necessary. Fire is the cheapest tool also for companies converting forest to plantations.”

Abberger believes it is unlikely that the Indonesian government will reduce the amount of forest available for conversion to plantations. “Oilpalm and timber plantations are big businesses. In times of crisis it is hard to convince a government not to use its resources to make money. Even the International Monetary Fund promoted oilpalm as one way out of the [economic] crisis,” said Abberger.

Local farmers are not motivated to put out fires on adjacent land, in part, because they lack a sense of ownership, according to Abberger: “Their land rights are weak, access to forests are sometimes prohibited. They see big concessions making a lot of money and they having almost nothing. Why should they prevent a fire in an adjacent concession forest, or even in a protected forest area, which belonged to them 10 years before?”

Prior to the recent rains, Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) had reached 100, one point away from a level considered “unhealthy”.

ASEAN members include:

  • Indonesia
  • Malaysia
  • Singapore
  • Brunei
  • Laos
  • Myanmar
  • Philippines
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia

IFFM is a technical joint project between Indonesia and Germany. The project began in 1994 and is scheduled to last for eight years. The German Agency for Technical Co-operation, which is in overall charge, contributes with long and short-term consultants and provides training and advice in the setting up of a complete fire management system for the region. Indonesia provides personnel, operational budgets and facilities.

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