Southeast Asian ministers hold talks on combating haze


KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia, AFP

Southeast Asian environment ministers began talks Friday on ways to combat the choking haze which has blanketed parts of the region in recent years.

Indonesia recognizes the regional anger over the pollution and is prosecuting plantation companies which start most of the blazes to clear land, Jakarta’s Environment Minister Sonny Keraf was quoted as saying before the meeting began.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted an action plan to douse the fires at the height of the pollution in late 1997. The haze returned to a lesser degree in 1998 and this year.

Keraf, in an interview with the Sun newspaper, pleaded for understanding and said Indonesia faced several constraints including a lack of firefighting equipment.

“Forest fires occur mostly far away from towns and regional capitals for immediate response to be possible,” he said. “Legal action to bring the culprits to court is the next best step.”

Apart from heavy fines, Indonesia would seriously consider revoking the licenses of the companies which started the blazes in Sumatra and in Kalimantan on Borneo island, Keraf said.

During a visit to Malaysia in March Keraf said about 10 companies — including two Malaysian and one Singaporean firm — were responsible for the blazes.

When the haze returned briefly to Malaysia in July there were angry calls for the government to publish detailed air pollution readings. It refuses to do so on the grounds that this would scare away tourists.

At their two-day closed-door meeting the ministers will also review progress on various international environmental agreements.