Mon, 17 Oct 1994

Singapore envoy briefed on RI forest policy

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesia will make every effort imaginable to prevent forest fires, which sent thick haze to Singapore last month and caused major health hazards, in the future, State Minister of Environment Sarwono Kusumaatmadja says.

One of the measures being pondered is to end the burning method still widely practiced to clear up forest areas, Sarwono told reporters on Saturday after a two-hour meeting with Singapore Minister of Environment and Communication Mah Bow Tan.

Sarwono explained that studies showed the slash and burn method -- blamed for the thick haze which recently blanketed Kalimantan, Sumatra and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia -- was "inefficient and risky," although it was considered fast and inexpensive.

Resolving to end the haze, which has lasted for over a month, was the highlight of his talks with Mah.

Covering some 80,000 hectares in Central Kalimantan and 200 hectares in East Kalimantan, the fire finally started letting up last week with the coming of the rainy season.

"The meeting will hopefully convince the people in Singapore to refrain from overreacting to the situation," Sarwono said.

Mah explained that the two governments agreed to extend bilateral cooperation in preventing forest fires or in overcoming them. The two ministers will meet annually.

Singapore has contributed a number of suggestions to eliminating the haze in Kalimantan, he said. Its satellite system is expected to provide sound information on the locations of the fires and give early warnings on where fires can take place.

Land-clearing practices of forests or shrub areas are required to prepare the land for the next planting season.

Sarwono pointed out that the burning practices of land- clearing are hazardous since they cause extensive forest fires, soil degradation and reduce bio-diversity.

He admitted that the government currently lacks a special agency appointed to eliminate the fires, although each ministry has its own methods of overcoming such problems.

"Presently the Environmental Impact Management Agency (Bappedal) is coordinating the inter-department activities... but in the future, we hope to have a special agency," he explained.

New alternatives

Sarwono said that Bappedal, which is overseen by his office, would seek new alternatives to land-clearing methods. In the meantime, however, it would coordinate preventive steps to stop the possibility of future fires.

"Indonesians are usually aware of how dangerous fire can be only after it is too late," he said.

Alternatives include using wood waste as a basic material for fertilizers, charcoal or other sources of energy. Such methods already exist in traditional forms but are still unpopular.

He also considered it necessary to compile fire prevention mechanisms in the mandatory Environmental Impact Analysis (Amdal) of logging companies and in company contracts to ensure there is clear responsibility over any fires which may occur.

Sarwono strongly rejected the suggestions made by some government officials that the main cause of the haze was land- clearing practices by nomads.

"Just compare the amount of haze caused by slash and burn practices by nomads -- who clear areas of shrubbery -- with those who clear up forests for timber estates... which one causes more fires?" he asked.

Recent studies, he said, clearly showed that although the areas on fire were small, the haze it contributed was much larger, meaning that the biomass of the burnt plantation was also larger.

Traditional nomadic tribes, he said, had long adapted good forestry management.

"But logging companies, both government and private-owned, have no excuse... (The companies) have the organization and the management, while the government has the authority, but they neglect to manage these," Sarwono pointed out.(pwn)