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Indonesia ablaze.

Forest fires "raged out of control" in Indonesia beginning in early September, spreading quickly across Borneo and leaving the whole island "covered in a thick layer of smoke .... Fires also raged in Sumatra ... and Sulawesi, as well as the mountain areas of Java, fanned by strong winds and fueled by a prolonged dry season."

This description of the catastrophic fires in Indonesia, taken from an article written in 1988 for Inside Indonesia, just as accurately describes events today as it did nearly a decade ago. But the 1997 fires, which were only the fifth largest of these nearly annual phenomena in the past two decades, have for the first time forced the Indonesian government to acknowledge its responsibility for what environmentalists are calling "a planetary disaster."

Scrutinized by the international media for the country's sluggish response to the disaster, President Suharto himself took the unprecedented step of apologizing to his country's neighbors for the smog. By October 15, nearly 1.7 million hectares had burned, more than a thousand people had died (poor visibility due to the smoke caused several major accidents and left drought victims without aid), and more than 20 million had suffered smoke-related respiratory troubles. The Indonesian government in early October revoked the logging licenses of 29 companies (several of them state-owned) for failing to report on their suspected role in starting the fires. Those affected include companies owned by Indonesia's two wealthiest billionaires, as well as an operation owned by timber baron Bob Hasan, who as Suharto's golf partner is often referred to as Indonesia's real forestry minister.

But it is doubtful that removing operation permits will make any difference next year when El Nino conditions are expected to cause dangerous droughts once again. Thirty-seven of the 176 logging firms and palm-oil plantations the government has investigated have been operating without licenses anyway. "This is a disaster," said Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja. "Threats of sanctions without real action have proven ineffective." The government's promise to prosecute those responsible for the fires now seems unlikely, as the minister of information has since forbidden the media to fie well-connected timber firms and plantations to the fires.

Coincidentally, several fires in Kalimantan are located in a 1-million-hectare expanse of marshland that Suharto personally designated to be drained and cleared for rice growing and other cash crops.
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Title Annotation:Environmental Intelligence; forest fires in Asian country
Author:Runyan, Curtis
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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