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Indonesia – hazy skies and testy ties

Updated On: Jul 06, 2007

As the dry season begins, fires and the resultant haze from Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan, aided by the south-westerly wind, has reached Malaysia

Air quality and visibility in various parts of Malaysia has declined. This annual phenomenon will certainly test Indonesia’s bilateral ties with Malaysia. Until Wednesday, 4 July, Malaysia has detected about 270 hotspots (later on dropped to about 150) in Sumatra Island, particularly in Riau Province.

The newly issued (June) by-law released by Riau Province government has given permission to indigenous people to clear land using fires. The central government through the  Ministry of Forestry has been complaining, saying that their efforts for years to teach the farmers and villagers to use alternative land clearing method have doomed to failure. Whether this new regulation by the provincial government is the reason for the haze remains uncertain. Other report says that based on last years’ experience, most of the hotspots are located in big concession holders’ plantation areas, notably oil palm and timber plantations.

Neighboring countries have always complained to Indonesia about the fires and haze, many efforts have been done, but the same problem recurs every year since 10 years ago, usually between July and October. If the problem persists or gets even worse, Indonesia is surely to receive more complaints.

However, the wet-season this year gives some relief, since the number of hotspots is way below the thousands of hotspots recorded at this point in 2006, which was the worst year with haze in Southeast Asiaafter 1997. Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry has pledged to reduce the number of hotspots by half, spending about S$ 118 million on the efforts.

Now that Malaysians have to deal with the haze, how Malaysia reacts will influence its relations with Indonesia. Similar to what Singapore has been doing in the Jambi Province, to provide supports in forest fires prevention and management, Malaysia has committed to provide physical assistance to prevent fires in the Riau Province.  But according to its Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datus Seri Azmi Khalid, as quoted by The Star, an MoU was required before the proposal could be implemented.

The annual haze that Indonesia produces from burning practices may hopefully stop if Indonesia’s 20 million hectares of peat bogs is turned into the trade of carbon credits. According to Marcel Silvius, Senior Program Manager of Wetlands International NGO, “Indonesia's peatlands emit two billion tons of carbon dioxide each year – more than the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Japanor Germany”, quoted Reuters. If the carbon trading system is set up, forest conservation could become highly profitable as industrialised countries purchase ‘carbon credits’ to offset their own emissions. While there are no concrete plans, many expect it to be realised “after the UN climate meeting in Bali hears a report on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation (RED)” in six months. Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar told Reuters, “It has to enter the agenda so that developing nations such as Indonesia can benefit. We are ready. We have a grand plan to identify and restore or conserve our forest areas. We have also prepared the financial side of the deal.”

However, scientists warn against early optimism. University of Nottingham peat expert Professor Jack Rieley cautioned, “A lot of things are supposed to happen at a high level. The problem is the low level – how are you going to stop fires on the ground? None of these schemes will work if the fires aren't stopped. You'll not only lose your forest, you'll lose your peat and its ability to function as a carbon store.” Without a serious strategy, Indonesia may lose everything and be left with an irreparable environment to boot.

Elsewhere, the spat over the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) between Singapore and Indonesia looks set to escalate with criticisms by Indonesian defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono that Singaporeis trying to undermine negotiations on the DCA and would want to fail the agreement. He said Singapore wanted the DCA to be abandoned so it would not have to sign the extradition treaty.

According to Juwono, the main dispute is over the Bravo area, which lies in the South China Sea that has been allocated for Singapore’s military exercises under the DCA. Singapore is asking 15days a month for exercises in the area. That was deemed as too much and unacceptable by Indonesia who wanted to restrict it to just four to six days a month, considering the environmental impact and concerns for fishermen’s livelihood and security. 

Juwono added that by bowing to Indonesian demands in the extradition treaty, Singapore would unwittingly admit that it harbored fugitives who stole money from Indonesia. That will dent the country’s image as a clean country. Juwono’s statement will likely fuel domestic opposition to the DCA.

But Juwono said Indonesia would continue to promote diplomacy to have both agreements implemented. Indonesia has given Singapore until the end of the year to consider its version of the agreement.

Analysts see Dr Juwono's remarks as aimed at placating local politicians who had lambasted him in Parliament for failing to protect Indonesia's interests while negotiating the treaties. The majority of Indonesian members of parliament and some politicians believe that the DCA breaches Indonesia’s sovereignty.  Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, however, views this simply as domestic politicking to deny any credit to the (Yudhoyono) government.  As quoted by AFP, MM Lee said Singapore has always ups and downs in relations with Indonesia (and Malaysia). Singaporeans have got used to these ups and downs over many years, so they will not be rattled.

Meanwhile, the EU decision to ban all Indonesian airlines to fly within its airspace and strong warning to its citizens not to use the airlines has received different reactions. Last week, Indonesia’s vice president Jusuf Kalla said it would not affect the domestic airlines. Early this week, Indonesia’s Transportation Minister Jusman Syafei Djamal said that the ban was unfair since the EU never gave Indonesia a chance for a dialogue, hence the President has asked him to look for ways to fairly retaliate against them. But he continued that such actions have to be avoided and he preferred dialogue and international cooperation.

With around 600,000 to 800,000 European tourists visiting the country annually, the ban would surely have an impact on Indonesia's tourism sector.

Right after the ban was announced, Indonesia has vowed to reform its troubled aviation industry by signing a pact with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Indonesia has also forged cooperation with Australia on a 178 billion rupiah transportation safety assistance program to improve flight safety. (5 July 2007)

Sources:

Air quality drops in Malaysiaas annual haze season looms (AP/Jakarta Post, 3 July 2007)

Air quality drops in M'sia, haze season looms (AP/Straits Times, 3 July 2007)

Haze back as Indonesia's forest-burning season begins (Straits Times, 2 July 2007)

Indonesian "wet dry season" should mean less haze (Antara, 2 July 2007)

Indon 'wet dry season' should mean less haze (Straits Times, 2 July 2007)

Air quality poorer in M'sia after Indon forest fires (AFP/Straits Times, 2 July 2007)

Malaysia can’t help prevent Riau fires until MoU is signed (The Star, 4 July 2007)

Riau ignores haze worry, let farmers burn (New Straits Times, 4 July 2007)

Ministry of Defence: Singaporewants to fail the cooperation (KOMPAS, 3 July 2007)

Minister criticizes S'pore over treaties (Jakarta Post, 3 July 2007)

S'pore-Jakarta ties that bind (Straits Times, 4 July 2007)

Ties with RI, Malaysianot always be smooth : Lee Kuan Yew (Antara, 1 July 2007)

'Non-stop politicking' in bid to deny credit to leaders (Straits Times, 4 July 2007)

Climate deals turn up heat in Indonesia's dark peatlands (Reuters, 2 July 2007)