Environment: Smog-hit states point the finger at Indonesia

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As forest fires continue to burn across Indonesia, there is growing anger at the country's apparent collusion in one of the world's biggest ever environmental disasters.

The satellite photographs above clearly show that, far from being accidental, many of the fires have been deliberately started by landowners as a means of clearing jungle for plantations. Richard Lloyd Parry weighs the accusations.

Smoke from fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo has blanketed the region since the summer, disrupting transport, industry and causing health problems in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and Thailand. Until last weekend, the Malaysian state of Sarawak, in the north-west of Borneo, was under a state of emergency, and the haze is believed to have contributed to an air crash which killed 234 people in Sumatra last week, and to at least three collisions between ships in the busy Straits of Malacca.

A fortnight ago, President Suharto of Indonesia apologised for the fires, and unveiled measures to crack down on companies which violate a ban on forest burning. Since then, however, Indonesian plantation companies and his ministers have continued to insist that the disaster is natural in origins, caused by a prolonged drought and the meteorological phenomenon known as El Nino.

"The country cannot be held responsible for a natural disaster. We cannot be sued," said the minister for people's welfare, Azwar Anas, on Sunday. "All experts in the world have said that this catastrophe is not only a natural disaster concerning Indonesia or one resulting from the actions of Indonesians, but it is a global disaster."

But these photographs, published yesterday in the Singapore newspaper Straits Times, show that many of the fires are being started deliberately for financial gain.

As fellow members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), the stricken countries take pride in their non-confrontational approach to regional differences. But, according to diplomats and officials, the facade of harmony may be cracking as Indonesia's neighbours take account of the huge cost of the fires.

The Straits Times, which openly defers to the views of the Singaporean government, published an editorial this week criticising Mr Anas and his government. "The patience of Singaporeans and Malaysians is wearing thin," it said. "The cost of the haze is getting unacceptably high and it will get higher if not enough Indonesian officials act urgently, decisively. [The fires] are all of Southeast Asia's business now."

The Malaysian environment minister, Law Hieng Ding, announced that he intends to "inform" Jakarta of the financial costs of the smog crisis. "It has caused inconveniences and brought about undue worry to the people," he said. "The people's daily lives were disrupted. Sarawak has lost millions of ringgit when it was put under a state of emergency."

"They're hinting that they want some kind of payment in kind," says a western diplomat in Kuala Lumpur. "The government is feeling far more pissed off than it is letting on."

Responsibility for the disaster is complicated by the fact that several of the plantation companies believed to be guilty of burning in Sumatra are Malaysian and Singaporean. The cleared land is used to cultivate palm oil, a lucrative commodity which can be harvested continually and which is in increasing demand worldwide for margarine. The Indonesian government itself has announced plans to double oil palm plantations to 5.5 million hectares by 2000. In forest areas where roads are few and poor, the only cheap and practicable way to clear felled trees is to burn them.

In Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, yesterday the Air Pollution Index was at safe levels of less than 100, after soaring to a record 839 last week. But there is concern about the long-term effects of exposure to the smog, and subdued resentment at the attitudes of the Indonesian government.

Sarawak has suffered serious smoke pollution before, in 1982, 1990, 1991 and 1994, although never on the scale of the last few weeks. "There will be effects on lungs and an increase in chronic bronchitis," said a doctor at Kuching's Normah Medical Centre yesterday. "As for cancer, no one knows. We won't know for 10 or 20 years."

A team of Japanese environmental experts arrived in Kuching yesterday. Several other countries have offered financial or technical assistance, including firemen from France and pounds 100,000 from Britain. But there is cynicism about the timing of the relief effort.

"Why wait until now to allow in firefighters from neighbouring countries?" asks a retired government official in Kuching. "The answer is that the job is done now. The trees have cleared the land for cultivation, and now all they need to do is douse the embers. This is what the people in the know are saying, although they cannot say it publicly: it was deliberate. The Indonesians knew what was happening and they let it happen out of greed."