Friday, August 12, 2005

"When something like this happens, we have to ask for God's help" (Haze 2005)

Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK

Haze over a passenger jetty in Port Klang, near Kuala Lumpur
Schools and a port were closed because of the thick smog
Malaysia's Muslim community has been asked to pray for rain to lift the smog that has enveloped the capital and surrounding areas.

"When something like this happens, we have to ask for God's help," said Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

The smog is drifting across to Malaysia from land clearance fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The haze has eased slightly since Thursday, when Malaysia declared an emergency in two badly affected areas.

But many people are continuing to wear face masks, some schools remain closed and the air in six districts is still classed as hazardous.

There is also no guarantee that this slight respite will be more than temporary, according to the BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur, Jonathan Kent - especially as the monsoon rains are not due until October.

Corruption claims

On Thursday ministers from both countries agreed a three-point plan to tackle the source of the fires burning across Sumatra.

A spokesman for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the Indonesian leader was taking the matter very seriously.

But more than 1,000 separate fires are still burning in Sumatra, and Indonesian officials have warned that it could be several days before they are brought under control.

The remoteness of some areas and a lack of resources are hampering efforts to extinguish the fires.

Malaysia has offered to send reinforcements, but is reported to be waiting for Indonesia to give the go ahead.

Critics say corruption, a lack of funds and poor law enforcement are to blame for many of the fires.

Environmentalists accuse big palm oil producers in the area of using the cheap but dangerous slash-and-burn method to clear land for their plantations - a method they need official permits to use.

But in practice, these permits are often easy to obtain and even if the firms accidentally start a fire, they are rarely prosecuted, due to what many environmental campaigners claim is an increasingly fraudulent system.

"Corruption and collusion is rampant. It's become public knowledge and no longer a secret," Ruly Syumanda, a spokesman for an Indonesian environmental watchdog, told the French news agency AFP.

While criticism has been heaped on Indonesia for failing to stop practices which can lead to forest fires, many of the large palm oil firms in the area are actually owned by businessmen from Malaysia.

In comments likely to spark fresh controversy, the Indonesian forestry minister said on Friday that at least 10 Malaysian plantation companies were operating in the affected area of Sumatra.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi vowed that action would be taken against any Malaysian companies caught burning forests in Indonesia.

"I feel very wretched. By now, they should have realised that what they did would have an impact here in Malaysia, their own country," he told the Associated Press.

Malaysian anger

In Kuala Lumpur, many people believe the blame lies squarely with Indonesia.

Dozens of demonstrators turned up outside the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, angry that nothing had been done to put a stop to the problem.

The Malaysian media also criticised Indonesia for not having signed a regional agreement on cross-border pollution.

But after recent disputes between the two regional neighbours, over oil concessions in disputed waters and the forced repatriation from Malaysia of illegal Indonesian workers, officials on both sides seem keen to avoid another diplomatic spat.

Air pollution in Malaysia has yet to match the 1997 levels, when mainly Indonesian fires caused a dense smog across South East Asia.