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Will coronavirus pandemic fan the flames of Southeast Asia's haze problem?

Will coronavirus pandemic fan the flames of Southeast Asia's haze problem?
A health worker of the Malang Health Agency in East Java takes a blood sample of a local resident during Covid-19 rapid testing at Lawang Market in Malang, East Java, on Thursday.
PHOTO: The Jakarta Post/ Asia News Network

KUALA LUMPUR : Weak enforcement of restrictions to curb Covid-19 infections in rural Indonesia, coupled with farmers opting for cheap ways to clear land, could see a repeat of the forest fires and smoke that choked South-east Asia last year, environmentalists said.

The annual haze season, from around June until October, caused airports and schools to close last year.

The burning of an estimated 16,000 sq m of land cost Indonesia US$5.2 billion (S$7.4 billion) in economic losses, according to the World Bank.

More than 900,000 people also reported respiratory illnesses.

Like many other countries, Indonesia is also tackling the coronavirus, but the government has been criticised for its slow response and low testing rates. Jakarta officials expect infections to peak at about 100,000 by June.

"My concern is that social distancing and lockdowns may not be monitored and implemented as strictly in the rural areas," said Dr Helena Varkkey, a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Deploying government staff to enforce the lockdown may pull them away from watching forests and farmers to prevent illegal land-clearing, she said.

DIPLOMATIC SPAT

Indonesian farmers burn huge swathes of forest and peatland each year to make way for oil palm plantations and other agricultural expansion, creating a vast haze of smoke that clouds the skies over large parts of the region.

Last year's forest fires, which caused a diplomatic spat between Indonesia and Malaysia, were the worst since 2015.

Dr Varkkey, who has researched the haze problem for more than 15 years, said despite coronavirus-linked restrictions on movement, annual forest fires in and around Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai still occurred last month.

In the southern part of South-east Asia, the traditional burning season falls later in the year, "but if the situation in Thailand is anything to go by, I am not optimistic that Covid-19 will have any positive effect on reducing haze", she added.

Prices of palm oil have dropped 30 per cent since January. Despite this, palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's top two growers, have largely remained open through the health crisis.

"If the industry continues putting production interests above environmental security, then the fire crisis may well be as bad or worse than 2019," warned forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia Rusmadya Maharuddin. - REUTERS

This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.

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