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Updated On: May 18, 2007

By Simon SC Tay, TODAY, May 17 2007

DARK clouds are gathering as the dry season begins in Indonesia. Prospects increase that fires and haze will again return to plague the region later this year. This alarming prediction is the consensus among experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and officials that emerged at a recent workshop in Jakarta.

This likely recurrence of the fires and haze is disconcerting. The problem has persisted for more than a decade and Asean's Agreement on the Transboundary is now in force. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised and promised action to address the problem.

While the dry season is a natural factor, analysts agree that human action, corporations and government policy in land clearing are factors that can be controlled.

Does the predicted haze mean nothing has been done? Does Indonesia still lack the political will to deal with the problem? Are there potential solutions ahead? Conflicting signals emerged from the workshop, organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs with two Indonesian partners - the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the World Wide Fund (WWF) Indonesia.

Some sectors in Indonesia have signalled that the government will not ratify the Haze Agreement. At the workshop, the Indonesian Minister of Forestry asked for regional assistance on illegal logging in consideration for supporting the Haze Agreement. Some Indonesian Members of Parliament wish to make it a precondition that Singapore and Malaysia help not only on illegal logging, but also in other areas such as anti-corruption and extradition, for which a treaty has now been concluded with Singapore.

While these claims have been loudest, the recent workshop notably gave space to other voices from Indonesia. All the NGOs present, including the Indonesia Forum for the Environment, or Walhi, and WWF- Indonesia wish to address the haze issue.

Similarly, local and provincial officials working in the fire-prone regions of Riau and Kalimantan detailed their efforts to prevent the fires, and to put them out speedily if they start. Taking a similar view, officials from the Indonesian Ministry for the Environment gave their assurance at the workshop that Indonesia would do its best under its national plan to deliver on President Susilo's promise, with or without the Agreement.

These views among NGOs, local officials and the Ministry for the Environment give some cause for optimism about efforts to address the fires and haze - in contrast to the statements by the Minister for Forestry and some MPs.

There is increasing recognition that the fire and haze primarily affect Indonesia, and are therefore issues the country must address for its own good and for the good of its citizens. The effects on neighbouring states are, in this perspective, important but secondary.

The negative impacts of the fires and haze on Indonesia's public health and economy are well documented and costs are estimated to run into billions of dollars. But even more than these estimates, the attitude of the NGOs and local officials is based on their real-life experiences, close to the ground.

These NGOs have projects in fire-prone areas and work directly with the victims of the fires and the thickest haze. Similarly, local officials in these fire-prone areas see the catastrophe up close.

In contrast, some policy-makers who sit in Jakarta know little or nothing of the haze as a first-hand problem.

One area of contention remains the identity of the primary culprits. Indonesian NGOs allege that the fires and haze stem mainly from lands owned by some of the large plantation companies. Others - including some officials and corporate spokesmen - put the blame on the smaller-scale, traditional farmers.

There are also differences in opinion on what can be done to address the issue. It is possible that with the push from local officials, NGOs, and the Environment Ministry, momentum can gather for Indonesia to redouble its efforts and also ratify the Haze Agreement. But even supporters of the Agreement acknowledge that while it is an important marker and useful mechanism, it is no panacea.

Regional support will be needed. Singapore, Malaysia and other neighbours have agreed, under the Asean agreement, to put seed money into the Haze Control Fund. The presence of Singaporean and Malaysian NGOs at the workshop alongside their Indonesian counterparts showed the support for such cooperation, at a people-to-people level. Hopefully, governments will follow suit to increase cooperation. This seed of cooperation and support must be grown, as Indonesia would need more resources as it starts to put its anti-haze plans into action.

More ways forward were identified at the workshop. One of them will be efforts to retain and replant forests and the conservation of peatlands, which are the worst producers of haze. Such projects would address not just the regional haze but also climate-change concerns at the global level. An opportunity to link with climate change will arise with Indonesia hosting the conference of parties meeting of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of the year.

Efforts to encourage Indonesia to address the haze must continue, and new initiatives must be explored and pursued, even as we should brace ourselves for another season of burnt earth and grey skies.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a non-government think-tank.

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