Wed, 15 Mar 2000

Government sets up forest fire enforcement team

PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan (JP): Air pollution and health problems are causing concern among people in the province, with no sign of abatement in devastating forest fires on Tuesday.

There has been an increase in the number of people admitted with respiratory problems, a member of staff at state Dr. Soedarso hospital said. However, no exact figure was available.

In parts of the provincial capital, the air pollution index has reached 1,030, far exceeding the maximum tolerable level of 300. Despite the risk of respiratory problems, many motorists were observed not wearing protective masks.

Residents said the smog started to restrict visibility from about 8 a.m. and lasted until dusk.

The NOAA satellite observation detected 708 hot spots across the province on Tuesday, mostly in coastal areas where oil palm plantations have been planted on peatland.

There has been no rainfall in the past three weeks.

Thick haze also shrouded most of West Sumatra on Tuesday, following a blaze which hit over 800 hectares of forests and plantations in the area.

The local administration has been helpless to extinguish the fire as prolonged drought and strong winds have helped in its spread. It destroyed protected forests in the regencies of Pasaman, Agam, Limau Manis and Padang.

The provincial capital of Padang, Padang Panjang, about 60 kilometers north of Padang, and Bukittinggi in Agam regency were the cities worst hit by the resulting haze.


In a bid to end forest fires, the government has formed an enforcement team to help bring those responsible for setting them to court, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare and Poverty Eradication Basri Hasanuddin said on Tuesday.

Smog from vast forest fires enveloped neighboring countries in 1997 to 1998 and wiped out hundreds of thousands of hectares of forestland.

About 1,200 hot spots were sighted by weather satellites in Sumatra last week.

Basri, after attending a special coordinating meeting with related ministries on forest fires, said the team "will be given full authority to investigate and collect data about any party who set fires to clear land".

Weak legal enforcement, due to politically connected companies and corruption, are among the factors blamed for continuing forest fires, despite various efforts involving Southeast Asian neighbors.

The decree on the team's establishment will be issued in the next two days, Basri said. State Minister of Environment Sonny Keraf said the team would be chaired by a detective from the National Police, but he did not identify the person.

The team will consist of representatives of the police, the Attorney General's Office and the Environmental Impact Management Agency (Bapedal).

"Any companies found to have caused fires either intentionally or unintentionally will face legal action and their names will be made public," Basri said.

He added the team would be aided by the National Aeronautics and Space Institute (LAPAN) to provide satellite images to identify the location of the fires.

The government has said the main cause of forest fires is land clearing by locals, plantation firms and timber companies.

Sonny said that despite a law providing jail terms of up to five months and a fine of Rp 10 billion, enforcement was slow.

"The new team is expected to take action as soon as possible," he added.

"The government has also instructed plantation firms and timber companies to extinguish fires in their operating area," Basri said. "Special task forces will be formed, consisting of locals and non-governmental organizations in needy regions."

He added that companies would be expected to pay for the teams' needs. (08/28/edt)