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UNEP Congratulates ASEAN on Fire Haze Agreement Thailand’s ratification brings ground breaking legal initiative into force

Bangkok, 24 November, 2003 – Heat seeking satellites, better trained fire fighters and a crack down on arsonists and irresponsible plantation owners are among a series of government-backed measures aimed at reducing devastating forest fires in Southeast Asia.

Today (November 25) a legal agreement among the ten member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comes into force.

The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, designed to prevent haze from land and forest fires, could become a global model for the tackling of transboundary issues according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Signed by ASEAN members in June 2002, it is the first regional arrangement in the world that binds a group of contiguous states to tackle haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said today “I congratulate ASEAN and the Governments of Southeast Asia for their foresight and commitment in combating the threats posed by uncontrolled land and forest fires. Such fires spell a double disaster for the environment through their massive release of greenhouse gases and their destruction of biodiversity.”

About 10 million hectares of Indonesia's forests, one of the world's centres of biodiversity, were destroyed in 1997-98 in fires started mainly on oil palm plantations and agricultural and forestry holdings on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. The blazes were fanned by hot, dry conditions caused by the El Nino weather phenomena. More than 20 million people were exposed to breathing extremely high levels of pollutants known to cause both acute and long-term health effects, airports in Singapore and neighbouring countries were closed by thick smog, and total economic losses across the region were estimated at around US$9.3 billion.

The agreement contains provisions on monitoring, assessment and prevention, technical cooperation and scientific research, mechanisms for coordination, lines of communication, information exchange, simplified customs and immigration procedures for emergency response and disaster relief, and establishment of an ASEAN Coordinating Centre for activities under the agreement.

In 1998 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Mr Toepfer to coordinate inter-agency assistance to the ASEAN countries to fight land and forest fires and to develop long-term preventative responses.

Beginning in March 2001 UNEP, in collaboration with the ASEAN Secretariat, assisted Government negotiators in meetings to develop the terms of the agreement.

The agreement enters into force today, 60 days after the deposit of the sixth instrument of ratification by the Government of Thailand with the Secretary General of ASEAN. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Viet Nam have earlier deposited their instruments of ratification.

Mr Toepfer said there was now a comprehensive system of prevention and response in place. “As well as the legal framework, we have an action plan to build fire fighting capability in the region, an early warning system which uses high resolution satellite imagery to detect hotspots, and proven commitment by governments to get tough on forest and plantation owners who flout anti-burning laws.”

He said UNEP would continue to provide support for ASEAN in implementation of the agreement, through capacity building in areas such as monitoring, legislation and education and the convening of the first Meeting of the Conference of Parties.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is composed of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

For further information:

The ASEAN Haze Action Online site is at - www.haze-online.or.id

Contact:

Tim Higham, Regional Information Officer, UNEP/ROAP, Bangkok, Thailand, tel: 662-288-2127, email: higham@un.org; or Nick Nuttall, Head of Media Services, UNEP, Nairobi, phone +254 2 623084, nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP Press Release 2003/65