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Indonesia promises its neighbours a haze-free year

[KUALA LUMPUR] Indonesia on Thursday promised its neighbours a haze-free year, saying new measures to combat forest fires should stop the polluting smoke wafting across South-east Asia.

From June until October, Indonesia is often shrouded in a haze caused by smouldering fires, many set deliberately to clear land for pulp and paper and palm oil plantations on Sumatra and Borneo islands.

Most of the fires burn on highly flammable peatland so spread beyond their intended target, sending smoke billowing over nearby Singapore and Malaysia.

But Nazir Foead, head of the Peatland Restoration Agency - set up last year to firefight - was optimistic there would be no repeat of 2015, which saw one of the worst outbreaks in years.

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"With the preparation the government is making, the re-wetting activities, I would say there should be no more haze going to the neighbours," Mr Foead said. "Fire will still happen, smoke will come out, but it can be put out immediately, so it shouldn't create the trans-boundary haze," he told reporters at a conference in Jakarta.

Mr Foead said his agency had worked with farmers on ways to avoid the slash-and-burn technique that is widely used to clear land quickly and cheaply.

In March, the agency also struck a deal with Indonesia's largest indigenous group, hoping to tap into their traditional ways of managing land and fires.

The agency aims to restore about 2 million hectares of drained and damaged peatland by 2020 by "re-wetting" them to prevent fires. The process involves raising water levels using dams and irrigation channels.

So far it has only restored 200,000 hectares.

Indonesia has been regularly criticised by neighbours and environmental groups for failing to end the annual fires, which cost the country US$16 billion in 2015 and hit more than 500,000 Indonesians with respiratory ailments.

The dry weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon in 2015 saw one of the worst outbreaks of haze in years, with smoke blanketing neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia for weeks and drifting as far north as the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Scientist Herry Purnomo has worked with local communities to prevent peatland draining and believes authorities are better prepared this year to fight any forest fires. "The weather is expected to be drier this year... we expect to see more fires compared to last year but not as bad as 2015," Mr Purnomo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.