Fri, 17 Mar 2000

Government depends on rain to douse forest fire: Sonny

JAKARTA (JP): State Minister of Environment Sonny Keraf conceded on Wednesday that Indonesia had so far relied mainly on rain to help douse the raging fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

He acknowledged the country was fortunate that the affected areas, particularly in Sumatra, experienced consecutive days of rain.

He expressed hope the downpours would continue to reduce the spread of the fires.

Sonny said the government would soon send out task force teams to fight the fires.

Separately, the head of the Directorate of Forest Fires at the Office of the State Minister of Environment, Antung Deddy, told The Jakarta Post that the lack of funding and human resources forced the government to rely on the elements.

Antung said the government could not depend on manpower due to the remoteness of fire-affected areas.

Sonny also regretted the unwillingness of local residents to take the initiative to fight the fires.

"They think forests don't give them direct benefits," he said, adding they believed they were more beneficial to outsiders.

Forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have reached alarming levels in the past two weeks, with many fearing a repetition of the regional environmental disaster caused by massive forest fires in 1997.

Several cities were enveloped by haze following recent fires, while officials have yet to estimate the number of hectares burned for land clearing by timber companies, plantation firms and locals,

Sonny said he had received letters from other countries urging Indonesia to prosecute those responsible for setting the fires.

"This is shameful for us. Even the President has received similar letters," Sonny said.

"There were 176 cases in the 1997 forest fires, but only one was brought to court and the guilty party was only sentenced to three months jail.

"That's our record." (08)