It is the burning season in Southeast Asia. Landowners eager to clear land light fires to do the job quickly. At the best of times, it is a destructive process; when the weather is especially dry, as in 1997 and again this year, it creates a choking haze that blots out the sun and poisons the air. Although all countries use the technique, Indonesia is the region’s worst offender.
Satellite photos — when they penetrate the smog — have already detected more than 1,200 fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan. In some cities, visibility on bad days is under 500 meters.
The dangers are well-known. Local residents, and especially the young, are threatened with crippling respiratory diseases. The haze has spread hundreds of kilometers, darkening skies throughout the region. Tourism has suffered; during the last big burn, losses were in the billions of dollars. No one has calculated the damage the fires do to the ecosystem.
After the 1997 disaster, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted a zero-burning policy. Laws are on the books that could be used against violators, but the well-connected plantation companies — many of which are not Indonesian — are rarely prosecuted.
This year could be different. The new government in Jakarta has pledged to go after plantation owners, giving them two weeks to extinguish all fires regardless of who set them. A team has been set up to ensure enforcement. Unfortunately, the central government’s influence weakens in the provinces.
Another form of pressure may work, however. The Association of Crude Palm Oil Importers has threatened to boycott Indonesian palm oil if the government does not take action. As the world’s second-largest producer of palm oil, the ban would hit plantation owners where it hurts. Unless, of course, the Malaysian companies that own Indonesian plantations where the fires are burning prefer to see a little less competition and higher world prices.
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