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VAST FIRES FOR PROFIT CHOKE REGION OF MILLIONS
ASIAN CITIES ENVELOPED IN AN UNRELENTING SMOG COMING FROM INDONESIABy Uli Schmetzer, Tribune Staff Writer
Web-posted Thursday, September 25, 1997; 9:44 a.m. CDT
Dateline: PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines
The smog drifted in slowly from the south, preceded by days of unusually dry heat. It came as a gray silky haze, paling the sun, thickening the air and reducing visibility until the daily flight from Manila to this capital of Palawan Island had to be canceled.
Alhona Christostomo said her chickens stayed in their coops, perhaps convinced it was still not morning. It was only when she checked her watch and switched on the radio that she realized "the haze" had arrived.
The haze came from 1,000 miles away, spewed by deliberate fires burning out of control in remote jungle forests of Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia.
The haze has left cities in Malaysia and Indonesia choking under a blanket of smog. It has smothered Singapore. It has closed factories, schools and government offices, reduced traffic to a trickle and kept flights grounded and forced the rerouting of air traffic.
This week it drifted into the Philippine islands of southern Mindanao, Palawan and the Visayas and drew its veil as far north as Manila, where the air was tainted with a whiff of burnt charcoal.
On islands off Palawan, natives huddled together and complained the sea had never been so smooth, the rains so scarce, the sun so pale and the air so stifling and thick. "What is happening?" they asked strangers.
At the root of the disaster is the annual practice of nomad peasants who cut down forests and then set them on fire to clear land for cultivation of crops for one or two years before they move on.
Usually these slash-and-burn nomads clear less than an acre. But in the remote areas of Borneo and Sumatra, profit-hungry agrarian and logging companies looking for cheap land to plant cocoa, palm oil and rubber have been burning tens, then hundreds of thousands of acres each year since 1983.
"Each company will burn a thousand acres at a time by simply pouring petrol over areas already logged," Emy Hafild, head of the Indonesian Environment Forum, said. "Right now we estimate about 250,000 acres are burning." Other estimates put the total number of acres blackened at 740,000.
Usually, the monsoon rains that start in July and August douse the runaway fires. This year the effects of El Nino--the climatic changes wrought by the warming of the Pacific Ocean along South America--have kept the clouds dry. The forests became tinder.
Since July, the fires on Borneo and Sumatra have burned out of control. The flames raged into virgin jungle, the habitats of the native Dayak tribesmen, the Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants and the famous Gibbon monkeys. Thousands of these animals may have already died.
"There are 20 million people in that area. They are our priority right now," an Indonesian official said. "We don't know how many animals are dead,"
The persistence of the fires stems partly from the massive coal deposits that lie near the surface of the burning forests. Many of the timber fires have turned into coal fires, which are more difficult to extinguish and whose fumes are far more toxic.
At a meeting of regional environment ministers in Jakarta, Indonesian President Suharto has apologized for the suffocating haze drifting over neighboring lands. Neither he nor the ministers came up with a plan to fight the fires or curb the commercial exploitation of virgin forests.
"No one has done anything since July. Our government just let the fires burn and sat and watched. There was too much money involved. It is only over the last three days that the government has finally mobilized the air force," Hafild said.
Irate Indonesians and Malaysians have taken to the streets to protest in countries where protesters usually are quickly dealt with. They are clamoring for the right to breathe and are asking why Indonesia, a country of fabulous wealth accumulated by its commercial elite, has failed to act.
Jakarta rejected a plan to hire water-bombing aircraft from Canadian plane maker Bombardier that can drop more than 12,000 gallons an hour of water drawn from the sea. The government said the cost of $200,000 a month per plane was too much. This week, Indonesian military aircraft tried cloud-seeding with limited success over Sumatra and no success over Borneo.
On Wednesday, the Malaysian National Haze Committee sent 1,200 firefighters to Indonesia to help fight the flames.
"It's all too late," Hafild said.
This week in urban areas such as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the haze combined with the fumes from traffic jams. In Kuala Lumpur, residents breathed through white masks, walked through a veil of smog and drove with their headlights on.
Singaporeans were warned on Wednesday to stay indoors, reduce vigorous outdoor activities and wear masks as the smog registered record pollution levels.
In Kuala Lumpur, the U.S. Embassy said 75 staff members and their dependents could leave if they were suffering ill effects from the smog.
Perhaps the city hit hardest has been Kuching in Malaysia's Sarawak province, where residents report visibility of only a few feet.
Kuching's 2 million citizens are living in a state of emergency, with schools and factories closed and the government working on a contingency plan to evacuate the entire population if the pollution worsens.
"But we don't know where to put all these people," Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lamented this week.
In the Strait of Malacca, separating Malaysia and Indonesia, two freighters collided in thick smog this week, and on Wednesday Indonesian authorities admitted that two people had died because of the haze. In Malaysia, more than 5,000 have been hospitalized with respiratory complaints.
Indonesian environmental groups have identified 187 "hot spots"--burning fires--on Sumatra, Borneo and Java. The Malaysian Haze Committee has been lobbying neighboring countries, mainly Indonesia, to create volunteer firefighting brigades in remote areas and lookout posts to report signs of fires in forests.
Surveys by various Asian industrial groups found the fires have caused billions of dollars in damage to high-tech production, the timber and tourism industries. Cash crops are dying or suffer stymied growth because the haze has blocked sunlight.
"If you put all the effects together, it costs money in every business," Ken McCall, Asia vice president of TNT Express, said this week in Kuala Lumpur.
Weather forecasts offer little hope. Meteorologists predict monsoons in November will not be sufficient to extinguish the fires and might not occur. "It would mean we have the fires burning until next April, when the next rains are due," Hafild said.