Forest fires are burning out of control in forest, plantations and scrub-land chiefly in Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo); it is now estimated that up to 1 million ha is burning. The fires have originated from timber and plantation companies burning land (often illegally) Conditions in the region are unusually dry because of a severe El Nino event (see below), hastening the spread of the fire. In addition, much of the natural forest is very prone to fire because of the effects of heavy logging.


The smoke from the fires is combining with pollutants from cities in Indonesia and Malaysia to create a suffocating smog that is obliterating the sun and causing serious breathing and respiratory problems. The smog has spread to Singapore, The Phillippines and even southern Thailand, and it is thought it will last until next April. Up to 70 million people are being affected.

The fires have been burning since July. However, the Indonesian government has not responded quickly enough, taking little action to put out the fires in the past months, and only announcing an emergency relief fund on 27 September. The relief fund is also far too little, the fund of Rp. 3.1 billion (less than US$800,000) being shamefully inadequate, given the magnitude of the tragedy. The government spends more than a hundred times this sum to keep powerful pulp, paper and peat barons in business (ref). For example: the Indonesian government subsidizes the aircraft industry to the tune of Rp. 400 billion (US$102 million) and PT Pulp & Paper, a plantation consortium, with up to Rp. 250 billion (US$64 million).

The government has also failed for decades to control its forestry and plantation sector, and not heeded the warnings of previous fires and the calls of environmentalists.

The smoke from the forest has combined with pollution from cities to produce a deadly smog, referred to in Asia as “the haze”. The haze has already claimed the lives of 19 people in Indonesia and over 40,000 people have been hospitalised. Up to 70 million people across the region are being affected, and health experts have warned that up to 20 per cent of all deaths in the region could be caused by the smog.

The haze is affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. In many of the worst-hit districts, calls have been made for people to stay indoors while special protective masks have sold out or are in short supply in many places.

The most serious health hazard from the smoke comes from the particles suspended in the air. The smoke from burning vegetation also contains a multitude of chemicals, including irritants such as sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and ammonia.

Though information is scant, the Air Pollutant Index (API) is reported to have reached 600 in parts of Indonesia (six times the norm) , and 839 in Kuching, Malaysia. The Air Pollution Index used is similar to the system used in the USA, but the readings of 600 and 839 go off the top of the USA scale.

The Total Suspended Particle (TSP) in Indonesia has been reported as 600 microgram, compared to a maximum detailed in a ministerial decree max of 260 microgram. The UK health standard is 50 .g/m3, and the UK government proposes to set its “alert threshold” - at which there is “Risk of more serious adverse health affects, not necessarily confined to sensitive groups ” at 100 .g/m3  (Note: the UK figures are for 24 hour averages and it is not clear if this what the figures reported from Indonesia represent).

The highest pollution reading in Kuala Lumpur so far is equivalent to a 24-hour particulate level (PM10) of 350 .g/m3 (ie seven times the UK health standard). The Kuching reading of 839 is too high to be converted to the scale used in the UK.

These levels of pollution are clearly extremely dangerous to human health. Even the pollution levels in the UK result in the premature death of an estimated 10,000 people a year, from asthma, bronchitis and other heart and lung problems .

Whilst the immediate effects of the pollution are most notably on the respiratory tract, it is not known what the longer term impact (eg. cancers) of prolonged exposure to these very high pollution levels will be. Experts have pointed out that inhaling wood smoke can cause throat cancer and long-term damage to the kidneys, livers and the nervous system.

Who's to blame?

Although the Indonesian government has named plantation and timber companies responsible for starting the fires (see below), environmentalists have attacked the Indonesian government for failing to control the illegal burning, and for the failure over the past years to control the destruction of the nation's forests, and the widespread illegal practices by the industrialists.

An Editorial in the Thai newspaper The Nation has planted responsibility squarely with industry and government. It said: “The blame must surely go to the logging and plantation companies which callously burn forests in the name of profits. Blame, too, must go to the Indonesian government for providing these companies with subsidies to clear the forests. And blame must also go to Asean - which despite years of meetings, reports and action plans - is impotent in stopping it from recurring”. 

The role of the timber and plantation industry - conclusive evidence available

The government has named 117 plantations, 27 Industrial forests and 19 transmigration sites in Sumatra and Kalimantan that have used burning on their land recently (even though it has been illegal since 1994), and given them 15 days to deny the allegations . If they cannot prove they have not used fire, their licences to operate will be reviewed and possibly revoked. Environment Minister Sarwono has stated that 90% of the burning is due to timber estates, plantation owners and transmigration sites .

However, other parts of the government are playing down the role of the industries, calling it a natural disaster due to El Nino, or even blaming small-scale farmers and indigenous communities for starting the fires .

Satellite observations from the NOAA satellite, however, confirm that the plantation and timber companies, not small-scale farmers or indigenous communities, are responsible for the fires. For example, the satellite images from April 1997 for Riau Province, Sumatra, show that 90% of the fire areas were in plantations, 8% were in forest concessions (known as HPH/HTI areas), and only 2% were on community lands. In June 1997, 87% of the hotspots observed were on plantation areas, 8% percent were in HPH/HTI areas, and only 4% were on community lands .

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