JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia pledged on Thursday to reduce forest fires by up to half this year, as Southeast Asian environment ministers met on Sumatra island to discuss ways to stop smoke billowing across their region.
The “haze” from fires on Sumatra and Borneo islands spread across large areas of Southeast Asia for months last year, polluting skies and frustrating Indonesia’s neighbors.
“Our target is to reduce them by 40-50 percent. We may never be able to eradicate forest fires completely,” Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar told Reuters by telephone after meeting counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand in Sumatra’s Jambi province.
“Forest fires also happen in Hollywood, Malibu in the United States and in Sydney, it’s a natural phenomenon. We have to be realistic. What we can do is prevent the repeat of last year’s scale,” Witoelar said.
Most of the fires are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and plantation companies, many of which are owned by Malaysian and Singapore firms.
Indonesia’s weather agency has predicted that the dry season on parts of Sumatra and the Indonesian portion of Borneo will start in June.
Witoelar said that at the meeting the ministers agreed on an action plan which included teaching farmers to avoid slash-and-burn practices and provide them with farming equipment.
Indonesia has earmarked 700 billion rupiah ($78 million) for this year’s efforts, he said.
Singapore had submitted to Indonesia a masterplan that covered fire prevention and suppression, legislation and enforcement as well as regional and international cooperation to fight haze, he added.
Indonesia and Malaysia were also cooperating in training personnel, fire prevention, peatland management and public education as part of efforts to tackle the fires.
A statement issued at the end of the meeting said Indonesia’s efforts since the start of their year had reduced the number of hotspots indicating potential forest fires by 58 percent from the previous year.
The ministers “recognize the urgency and importance of regional preparedness to tackle land and forest fires and transboundary haze pollution in the coming dry season,” the statement said.
Southeast countries have in previous years held a series of meetings to try to tackle haze, although they have appeared powerless when the fires flare up.
According to Greenpeace, Indonesia had the fastest pace of deforestation in the world between 2000-2005, with an area of forest equivalent to 300 soccer pitches destroyed every hour.
Indonesia has lost 72 percent of its intact ancient forests and half of what remains is threatened by logging, forest fires and clearances for palm oil plantations, Greenpeace said.
A report sponsored by the World Bank and Britain’s development arm released in June said Indonesia was among the world’s top three greenhouse gas emitters because of deforestation, peatland degradation and forest fires.