Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Still Hazy after All These Years

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Still Hazy after All These Years

Article excerpt

ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Still Hazy After All These Years...

The haze is back. It harms the quality of the air people breathe and is particularly threatening to the elderly, children and those who suffer from asthma. It can lead to lost days of work or education and damage regional tourism, but effective action has yet to be taken to combat this man-made menace.

In Southeast Asia, "haze" is the name given to the smoke and dust which rises up into the atmosphere from burning forests. A single blaze can send out a visible plume that stretches for 30 or 40 kilometers. But when a lot of fires occur at once, they create region-wide air pollution. The fires are started deliberately in order to clear land for agriculture. The chief culprits are the owners of plantations in Indonesia -- mainly in Sumatra, but also in Kalimantan (Borneo).

The first victims are the creatures that live in the rain forest. A habitat rich in birds, insects, animals and plants is obliterated and replaced by row upon row of plantation trees, such as oil palms. Next come the local people, among whom only a small minority are responsible for starting fires. Smoke blankets large areas, cutting visibility and making daily life a misery.

Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province in central Sumatra, suffers badly once the burning begins. What it experiences in March, following the rainy season, is just a foretaste of what is to come a few months later, when the forest is drier and burns more easily.

Last July, air pollution reached such dangerous levels that kindergartens and primary schools were closed. Young children were told to stay indoors. Hospitals received a stream of people suffering from breathing difficulties.

Low visibility caused by the thick haze was blamed for a three-vessel collision on the Siak River. A tanker collided with two boats, spilling out its cargo of oil, which was then ignited by a storm lamp. Twelve people died, most of them burned to death. A week later, visibility was reported to be down to 200 meters in parts of Riau, and a local state of emergency affecting land, sea and air travel was declared.

Prevailing winds carry haze into neighboring areas. Winds which blow over Sumatra take it to Singapore and Malaysia. On March 11, Malaysian marine police issued a warning to ships traveling the Straits of Malacca that haze had reduced visibility to about two nautical miles. Marines were put on the alert in case illegal immigrants tried to slip into Malaysia under the cover of haze. Air quality in Singapore slipped from an official rating of "good" to "moderate," before two days of heavy rainfall in Sumatra doused the fires and brought relief to the entire area. In the days before the rains came, 1,200 fires were detected in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The haze problem has existed for decades, but in 1997 El Niño significantly worsened matters by causing a prolonged dry spell. As fires spread out of control, 40,000 people were reported to have suffered from respiratory difficulties and tourism was badly hit. It was this experience which brought about a change in regional responses to haze.

Until then, the governments of Singapore and Malaysia had hung back from pointing the finger of blame for the annual periods of haze at their touchy and powerful neighbor, Indonesia. In 1997, they began by attempting to handle the issue the "ASEAN way" -- the preferred quiet diplomatic method of resolving differences among members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. It achieved nothing. Malaysia and Singapore finally made the issue public in August 1997, after some four months of haze. It was a sign that the two states had been driven to exasperation by Indonesian governmental inertia.

Since then, there have been promises aplenty from Indonesia, but little improvement in performance. Nature, not official action, brought last year's haze to an end.

The Jakarta Post, a leading Indonesian newspaper, stated in its editorial of March 11 that, in the past, sanctions against those starting fires had been inadequate, but went on to suggest that one reason for the ineffectual enforcement of existing laws was "money taken by corrupt forestry inspectors or wardens whose duty it is to stop and prevent the pactice of land clearing by burning. …

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