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Tuesday, December 23, 1997 Published at 10:21 GMT



Despatches

Environment ministers agree concerted action to prevent forest fires
image: [ The health of millions of people was affected by the fires ]
The health of millions of people was affected by the fires

A meeting of environment ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations in Singapore has agreed on a plan to try to prevent a recurrence of this year's forest fires in Indonesia, which covered much of the region in a thick blanket of smog. The fires were much worse than usual because of the unusually dry weather, caused by the El Nino phenomenon, but the ASEAN ministers acknowledged that their governments could do more to prevent and contain fires in the future. This report is from our Jakarta correspondent, Jonathan Head:

1997 will be remembered as the year forest fires in Indonesia turned into South-East Asia's worst-ever environmental disaster. The health of millions of people was damaged from inhaling the smoke.


[ image: Much of the region was covered in a blanket of smog]
Much of the region was covered in a blanket of smog
Tourism declined and the damage to Indonesia's environment may never be known. The ASEAN environment ministers now say they have drawn up very specific measures and a specific timetable to avert a similar crisis in the future.

Under the new plan each of the most directly affected countries will take on particular responsibilities. Singapore will coordinate monitoring via satellite, Malaysia will consider new preventative measures, and Indonesia will concentrate on fire-fighting.


[ image:  ]
The Indonesian environment minister announced that he would propose a moratorium on new investment in palm oil plantations, which are accused of being one of the main culprits behind this year's fires. He also promised to continue prosecutions against individual companies which are known to have used burning to clear land.

If properly implemented, the new measures should mean that ASEAN is better prepared for the next spell of dry weather, but environmental campaigners doubt whether the ministers can live up to their promises. They point out that some plantation companies in Indonesia have already used their political connections to avoid prosecution and they doubt whether the environment minister has sufficient influence to deflect the government from its target of becoming the world's largest palm-oil producer.

The minister himself has admitted that existing laws against burning land are largely ignored in the remote forests of Indonesia. Without proper enforcement on the ground, the new measures may prove just as ineffective.
 





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