Environment ministers from five Southeast Asian countries endorsed a plan of action on Thursday to fight forest fires in Indonesia that have spread choking smoke across the region.

Ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, meeting on a central Philippine resort island, agreed to set up an early warning system, build dams to block streams and rivers to divert water to underground peatlands and set up community-based firefighting brigades on Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands, where most fires have raged.

"We are very happy that we have a consensus," Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar told reporters. "It's not Jakarta's plan of action, it's a product of the region's cooperation and team spirit." Indonesia's neighbours have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and palm oil plantation companies -- some owned by Singaporeans and Malaysians -- to clear land for cultivation.

The smoke from the fires, known in the region as haze, affected much of Southeast Asia for months until rains a few weeks ago, triggering fears of a repeat of the choking smog that hit the region in 1997-98.


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