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Hazy issues cast a pall yet again

haze-us-embassy-fires

29 Apr Hazy issues cast a pall yet again

The Indonesian economy continues to do well, attracting Singapore investors to look southwards. Yet there was a cloud over the otherwise convivial bilateral retreat held last week between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The haze resulting from fires in the nearby Indonesian provinces cast a literal pall over the city even as the two leaders discussed cooperation.

Despite efforts over some 15 years after the worst fires in 1997 and 1998, the problem is recurring and has been getting worse of late. Last year saw the most prolonged spell for more than a decade and this year’s haze seems on track to be even worse.

The National Environment Agency of Singapore has begun hourly updates of the Pollutant Standards Index as the dry season, typically marked by heightened burning, approaches next month.

Singapore officials had earlier been working on the ground in the province of Jambi with some success, but the agreement has lapsed. President Yudhoyono responded positively during the meeting and promised to persuade provincial governors to resume cooperation. But with decentralisation and more autonomy in Indonesia, it remains to be seen if Jakarta can really deliver.

EFFORTS UNDERMINED

The province of Aceh provided a basis for scepticism.

Just before the announcements by the two leaders, it was reported that Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry is close to approving a plan by the Aceh government to rezone over a million hectares of protected forests into production forests. Such a move would open these forests to mining, logging and clearing for oil palm plantations.

Reports point not to Indonesian businesses but a Canadian mining company, whose chief executive praised the move while his company was “working closely” with Indonesian officials to implement the reclassification. The move has drawn sharp criticism from many non-government organisations (NGOs).

The troubling development has implications on efforts to contain the haze. Studies indicate that a large number of fires are set by plantation owners, especially palm oil and timber concessions.

It has also highlighted the assertion by many that attempts to address the haze are hampered when industry and corporations “capture” these efforts and render them ineffective: The previous Aceh government had committed to protecting these forests from being cleared, but its new administration is said to favour opening up forests for exploitation.

This problem goes beyond Aceh. A larger-scale difficulty may exist with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a well-intentioned effort to bring together the private sector, along with NGOs, to tackle the haze and other related issues.

A recent report by Greenpeace alleges that an RSPO member, a large palm oil company, has broken commitments and ignored the organisation’s standards by illegally burning and clearing large tracts of forest and peatland with impunity.

The report further contends that other RSPO members trade with this reportedly recalcitrant corporation. It questions the efficacy of the RSPO and suggests that industrial and commercial interests may have “captured” the initiative.

But other problems also exist. With the haze recurring year after year, there has been a notable lack of urgency and increasing fatalism towards the issue, putting a damper on political will and the capacity to address the problem.

Underlying this are deeper institutional problems. ASEAN inter-governmental cooperation on the issue is limited to environment ministers and does not include their counterparts in other relevant portfolios, which could explain in part how Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry was able to get away with the move despite promises by the country’s Environment Ministry to address the haze.

ADDRESSING WIDER ISSUES

Given these obstacles, a holistic approach towards haze prevention is needed. For one, public awareness and support, which have the power to influence companies, should be promoted.

If the general public in the region are more aware of their role in haze prevention, they will be better equipped to back “greener” companies and make their own consumption more environmentally sound, feeding into a virtuous circle between consumer and producer.

The involvement of other departments beyond the environment ministries in initiatives on the ground should also be sought, to prevent another incident like what took place in Aceh. Moreover, any venture to combat the haze must consider the delivery of sustainable economic development and other benefits to local communities, who experience the impacts of haze-causing practices most keenly.

The re-emergence of the haze and the recent issue in Aceh are symptoms of the problems plaguing the region. This is not just about governments resuming previous measures that have worked, important as they are.

Addressing these issues requires the expansion of earlier successful efforts, and new holistic attempts to address this ever-persistent problem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Simon Tay is the Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Nicholas Fang is the Executive Director of the SIIA. This article first appeared in TODAY.