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Thursday, August 26, 1999 Published at 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Forest fire pollution warning

Even with wetter weather, forest fires are a serious problem

Singapore's Environment Minister Lee Yock Suan is warning that forest fires in Indonesia could trigger another air pollution disaster.

Mr Lee, who is hosting a meeting of the region's environment ministers, said it was alarming that so many forest fires had already broken out despite the relatively wet weather this year.

Singapore says satellite pictures show Indonesian plantation owners are deliberately and systematically starting fires to clear large tracks of the jungle to prepare the land for planting.

[ image: Indonesian loggers are widely blamed for starting forest fires]
Indonesian loggers are widely blamed for starting forest fires
The illegal clearing is continuing despite a zero-burning policy announced by Indonesian President BJ Habibie in June.

A BBC correspondent in the region says many of Indonesia's neighbours feel there is only so much they can do to prevent a recurrence of the haze given that the source of the problem lies beyond their borders.

Fires are raging on Sumatra island near Singapore, and Kalimantan on Borneo island. Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore are particularly at risk.

Wetter weather this year had been expected to reduce the amount of haze - compared to the disastrous levels of two years ago, when it was aggravated by El Nino, the global weather phenomenon which caused dry weather in the region.

The BBC's Frances Harrison: A more systematic year-round approach is needed
But Mr Lee said: "We are concerned that, despite wetter-than-normal weather, and despite all the measures that we have agreed to undertake to prevent fires, numerous hot spots continue to appear.

"This means that should there be a prolonged dry period, the region will be hit by a haze disaster.

Troubled by unrest

"The existence of a rectangular network of clear-cut irrigation channels around the fires shows that the burning was done systematically and deliberately," he said.

To prevent a recurrence of the haze, Asean countries last year adopted a regional action plan with prominent roles assigned to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

But troubled by ethnic unrest and political uncertainties, Indonesia has seemed helpless in stopping plantation owners and logging companies from burning.

Indonesia's leading environmental watchdog, Wahli, has urged Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei to take Indonesia to the International Court of Justice for its alleged negligence.

The oil-rich kingdom of Brunei last month also threatened to bring a suit against Indonesia if prompt action was not taken to stamp out the fires.

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Internet Links

US Environmental Protection Agency: Haze Information

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Indonesian Integrated Forest Fire Management Project

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