Friday, September 20, 2002. Posted: 19:00:02 (AEDT)

Indonesian Borneo chokes under haze

Choking haze from forest fires has forced the indefinite closure of schools and offices in an Indonesian city on Borneo island, an official said on Friday.

Hidayat, a meteorology official in the Central Kalimantan capital, Palangkaraya, said conditions were horrible in the city, where visibility had dropped to 10 metres since Thursday.

A domestic Indonesian carrier, Merpati Nusantara Airlines, said the poor conditions had forced it to postpone all flights to Palangkaraya until the end of September.

"There's been no rain, it's horrible - the governor's office has instructed schools and offices to close until further notice," Hidayat said by telephone from Palangkaraya, 875 kilometres north-east of Jakarta.

"Only markets seem open," he said, predicting the haze would linger until October.

The wet season is due to start in October or early November.

Bouts of haze from forest fires, mainly coming from Indonesia's Kalimantan provinces on Borneo, have been a problem for six weeks, periodically affecting other parts of south-east Asia.

The fires, triggered by both land clearing and slash and burn farmers, create health and environmental problems almost every year.

Hidayat said other parts of Central Kalimantan province were suffering from haze, although not as bad as Palangkaraya, a key transit point on the Indonesian side of Borneo.

The east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and the independent sultanate of Brunei are also on Borneo.

The directive closing schools and offices was issued on Wednesday and took effect on Friday.

Hidayat said peddlers were doing a brisk trade selling face masks in Palangkaraya, home to around 200,000 people.

"In the past three days almost everyone has worn masks," he said.

Khadijah, an official at the airport in Banjarmasin, the provincial capital of neighbouring South Kalimantan province, said haze had been a problem although it generally cleared during the day. Flights were operating normally there, she said.

Thick haze from major fires on Borneo and Sumatra island in 1997 and 1998 spread to Singapore and Malaysia and cost regional economies $9 billion in damage to farming, transport and tourism.

Conservationists have long criticised Jakarta for failing to protect its natural resources. Indonesia admits its laws are too weak to deal with the problem and is promising reform.