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The BBC's Richard Galpin in Riau
"Environment officials in Riau are increasingly alarmed about the forest fires"
 real 28k

Friday, 10 March, 2000, 09:51 GMT
Indonesia faces new smog menace
Forest fire in Riau
The number of fires has increased over the past two days
Indonesian government officials have warned that the country could be facing an environmental disaster unless forest fires raging in Sumatra and Kalimantan are brought under control soon.

They say the crisis could be on the scale of 1997 when vast fires left a cloud of thick smog across large areas of south-east Asia.

The numbers of fires detected by satellites has risen from 400 to 500 in the past two days.

Firefighters have started to tackle the problem
The fires are concentrated around the city of Pekanbaru in Sumatra's Riau province, and the smoke pollution is threatening neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.

Cotton masks have been distributed to the local population in Riau to protect them from inhaling the thick smoky haze created by the fires.

Visibility is below 500 metres and pollution readings in the area have reached over the 300 level on the Pollution Standard Index (PSI).

An air-quality rating of 0-50 is considered good, 51-100 moderate and 101-200 unhealthy.

Legal action

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has welcomed the Indonesian Government's plans to take action against logging companies, which are suspected of starting the fires to clear land illegally to make way for more palm, rubber and coconut trees.

"The Indonesian Government's intention to summon logging and plantation company owners and to review their licences is the kind of tough measure needed to pre-empt another crisis," said the UNEP's Asia Pacific director, Nirmal Andrews.

In Jakarta, officials said enough evidence had been gathered against four large plantation companies in Riau to prosecute them for flouting the law and continuing to burn land.

Officials said the companies were believed to be using fire to clear land in time for the new planting season.

Regional response

But environmentalists say Indonesia's laws provide insufficient sanctions against atmospheric polluters.

Singapore's Environment Minister Lee Yock Suan was also sceptical about the prospects for legal action in Indonesia.

Haze could be damaging to health
"I am not sure at this point in time to what extent the laws are water-tight, whether they can catch these people unless they have actual on-the-spot evidence," he said.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) has put into operation its fire suppression mobilisation measures.

"These mobilisation measures are part of the broader action plan for the prevention and control of land and forest fire and haze in the whole of Sumatra and West Kalimantan," a statement said.

Asean environment ministers are due to meet in Brunei early next month to discuss the problem.

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See also:

10 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia's fires: Who's to blame ?
10 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Sumatra's forests ablaze
03 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Forest fires rage in Sumatra
25 Feb 98 | Analysis
Haze - who starts the fires?
13 Apr 98 | Asia-Pacific
Brunei chokes in thick smoke haze
26 Feb 98 | Analysis
Haze - what can be done?
01 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
Return of the Asian haze
09 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Anti-pollution steps in Sumatra
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