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Friday, 10 March, 2000, 18:09 GMT
Indonesia's fires: Who's to blame ?
By Chandrika Deshpande
Some of the most powerful logging companies in Indonesia stand accused of causing the forest fires, which have left large parts of south-east Asia blanketed in thick haze for the third year running.
Environmentalists and government officials say that the slash-and-burn methods of logging companies and large plantations are continuing, despite a government ban.
The government says it has used satellite data to identify about ten companies responsible for the large number of fires sweeping across Sumatra.
Indonesia's Environment Minister, Soni Keraf, said the government was planning to take serious action against the companies involved, once it had gathered enough evidence against them.
There are also plans to set up an environmental task force to investigate the latest outbreak of fires, with the co-operation of the police, the forestry department and local government.
Companies found guilty of starting fires risk having their operating licences revoked.
But Asean is severely limited by its core principle of non-interference in the affairs of its neighbours, even though they too stand to be affected by environmental problems on the scale of Indonesia's.
There has also been talk of ethical purchasing within the region, to ensure that those buying Indonesia's profitable exports, such as tropical timber and palm oil, take a stand on how such goods are produced.
Even though this proposal is not a substitute for government action, it can, at least, put environmental concerns on the agenda.
Unlike in 1997, Indonesia cannot blame freak weather conditions such as El Nino for the spread of the forest fires.
But after years of corrupt and weak local government, Indonesia's ability to enforce its own laws appears limited against the powerful firms responsible for the blazes.