SEPTEMBER 24, 1997
Due to an out-of-control brush fire in Indonesia, a heavy smog has covered large portions of Indonesia and Malaysia. Following a background report from ITN, Jim Lehrer discusses the situation with Tony Whitten, a biodiversity specialist at the World Bank; and Don Henry, director of the Global Forest Program at the World Wildlife Fund.
JIM LEHRER: Joining us now are Tony Whitten, a biodiversity specialist for East Asia at the World Bank. He was in Indonesia in July, and Don Henry, director of the Global Forest Program at the World Wildlife Fund, who just returned from the area. All right. First, let's go to the cause and the fires. Explain the deliberate setting of fires. What would that be all about in Indonesia, itself? Why would people set the fires?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 23, 1997
Smoke from forest fires make the city of Kuching in Borneo one of the most polluted places on Earth.
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's page on El Niño.
DON HENRY, World Wildlife Fund: We see a couple of things going on, Jim. One concern is that the clearing of forests for plantations means that people are setting fires to areas that they have cleared to try and clear the land more quickly. The other is--
JIM LEHRER: Let's explain why they do that--is so then they can come along later and plant in there, right?
DON HENRY: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: And they've been doing that for years. This is not a new thing, right?
DON HENRY: But the problem right now with both clearing for plantations and smaller fires is there are severe drought conditions that are affecting rain forests, that have been badly damaged in many cases by logging, and they're drier, and fires will catch in them. Normally, rain forests won't burn, but when they're degraded or when the clearing starts, it means that in a drought condition, as we have now, they can catch fire, and that's a disaster for the region.
JIM LEHRER: Clearing is a routine that's been going on for years, right?
TONY WHITTEN, World Bank: Yes. That's certainly true. But what's special now is that the clearing is being done over very wide areas and it combines with this period of extreme drought. There's been about 20 years over which we've had some of the driest years of the century and over which period logging and land conversion for plantations and other major land conversion programs have been going full. So it's the combination.
Blaming the large-scale plantations...
JIM LEHRER: And small farmers do this as well, do they not?
TONY WHITTEN: Well, what we're hearing is that the Indonesian government, Indonesian government ministers are blaming the large scale plantations and those large scale things for causing the fires. But in the past they've often blamed the small guy, the farmer that--the pepper farmer. But I noticed in one report that some of the timber tycoons don't necessarily agree with the government line, and that they are still blaming the small guy.
JIM LEHRER: All right. So the fires have started, and under normal circumstances before this particular time at least the rain forest would--they stopped it, right, from spreading and in a serious way?
DON HENRY: Rain forests are dark and wet. They don't normally burn. But if you go in and damage them with logging, or if you're starting to clear them and then you throw a drought on top of that, it can catch fire.
JIM LEHRER: And the drought is related to El Nino.
DON HENRY: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Explain what El Nino is and how it is affecting the drought.
TONY WHITTEN: Okay. It's originally a rise in sea temperature just to the Northeast of Indonesia. And that water moves towards the East, and this causes a disruption of the normal climate patterns, and it results in abnormal weather patterns. We're expecting a reasonably mild winter this year. This is all part of the El Nino effect. And what happened--it seems to be sort of a four- to five-year cycle, something like that, and the fires are raging every year in Sumatra and Kalimantan and in Borneo, but it seems as though every four or five years we get a situation like we have at the moment.
JIM LEHRER: Because of the El Nino weather situation.
TONY WHITTEN: Because of abnormal weather conditions, that's right.
First Priority: Stopping the fire.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, whatever the cause, we've talked about--now, what do you do about it now, Mr. Henry?
DON HENRY: Well, there's some urgent action that's needed to try and get control of the fires, but that's going to be very difficult because it's predicted that these drought conditions from El Nino are going to continue for some time.
JIM LEHRER: Give us a feel for how many acres or square miles are involved in these fires.
DON HENRY: We've got about a million acres burning at the moment.
JIM LEHRER: A million acres.
DON HENRY: And about a thousand fires on those two islands of Southern Borneo and Sumatra, but behind the scenes, the problem we're still seeing, the smoking gun in this, if you like, is the rain forest clearing, and we're seeing still in Southeast Asia the loss of about 14,000 square miles of rain forest a year. That's the size of Switzerland, the size of Switzerland in rain forest is still being lost from this region. And this region has overall in the last 30 years lost about a third of its forests.
JIM LEHRER: But back to the immediate problem, how do we--what can be done to stop this, these fires from spreading and to get the air clean?
TONY WHITTEN: Well, at this time we've got the government of Indonesia at least pointing the finger at large scale enterprises.
JIM LEHRER: Trying to stop the fires, right?
TONY WHITTEN: They can tell those people, and they have told those people--the president has told those people to stop the fires. We've had the minister for the environment telling about a hundred and seventy-five logging companies that if in 15 days they can't prove that they didn't set the fires, then they'll be in trouble. In theory, if you deliberately set a fire to clear land, you're liable to up to 10 years in jail or a $33,000 fine. We've got in some ways the policy--
JIM LEHRER: But that has not been enforced in the past.
TONY WHITTEN: That has not been enforced in the past.
JIM LEHRER: You think it is going to be this time?
TONY WHITTEN: The threat is there. They have to--the onus is now on the timber companies, not particularly plantations yet but certainly the timber companies to prove that they didn't set the fires. We will just have to wait and see whether the threat is carried through.
What are the potential health risks?
JIM LEHRER: All right. Meanwhile, in other places outside of Malaysia, places where--I mean, outside of Indonesia, like Malaysia, where in Singapore, as we just saw, where the smog is so bad, what--give us a feel for the health problem, the potential health problem.
DON HENRY: Very serious. I mean, we're seeing--
JIM LEHRER: How many people?
DON HENRY: There's, in Indonesia alone, and this is spilling over into Malaysia and Singapore, there's talk of 20 million people suffering respiratory problems at the moment from the impact of the haze.
JIM LEHRER: We can see from the map all of the areas that are affected there, Indonesia--fires coming from Indonesia, and that smog is being blown by the--
DON HENRY: It's being blown--
JIM LEHRER: In all directions, right?
DON HENRY: In all directions. Right across Malaysia and even across the Southern Philippines, and there are airports closed or reporting unsafe conditions for planes landing in the Southern Philippines because of the haze, and the haze plume is up over 3,000 feet into the sky zone, so it's a huge amount of smoke up there already, and it's--it's not going to be easy to put this out. And we're going to be putting up with it while this drought lasts unfortunately.
"How in the world do you get rid of this smoke?" JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, if you're the head of Malaysia or Singapore, how in the world do you get rid of this smoke?
TONY WHITTEN: What they're trying is seeding the clouds to try and make it rain, to try and get rain drops to clean the particulates out of the air. That's not 100 percent successful. And you never quite know perhaps whether when it does rain, it would have rained anyway, but that's one thing that's being tried. It's very difficult to answer that. I'm not sure whether we will--
JIM LEHRER: Hope something happens. Go ahead, sorry.
TONY WHITTEN: There is a hope that fire fighters will be able to put out the fires but this is a drought situation and there's not much water in the rivers that they would need. They've got to take water pumps into the field. We're talking about quite remote areas.
JIM LEHRER: So as a practical matter, while the fire--if the fires are still burning, it's pointless to try to clear the air over your city or your country, if you're in the neighboring country, is that right?
DON HENRY: It's not going to happen. And what you've got to do is rally support, additional support to put the fires out. Japan and Malaysia are helping, as we saw in that clip, but I think the key thing that the governments can do is make sure these problems are addressed, and make sure that in the future the risks of this are reduced because it's happening now, it's burning, and it's a tragedy, but we can reduce the possibility of this tragedy reoccurring.
JIM LEHRER: What about the use of masks and all of that, that--the doctor said on the piece just now forget it, that's not going to help anything?
TONY WHITTEN: I'm not a health expert but I was interested to see a comment by someone who was running the weather station in a town called Runat in Eastern Sumatra, which is being evacuated, the whole town is being asked to leave, and the weather station there is having to change the air quality filter every hour because it's just filling up with particulates. Now if you're wearing a mask, presumably the same applies for the mask if you're not changing that every hour, then you will actually start breathing in the particulates through the mask.
JIM LEHRER: So there could be a lot of illness before this thing is over, all kinds of respiratory diseases.
DON HENRY: That's exactly right. It's a problem for people, but, Jim, I'd also like to emphasize we don't know at all the impacts on say wildlife because these are rain forests, the home of the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino, tigers, and the like.
JIM LEHRER: A lot of endangered--
DON HENRY: Very, very important wildlife in these rich forests, and this is a signal of the loss of these forests and the impact on that wildlife we don't have a handle on.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, gentlemen. Thank you both very much.