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Transboundary haze - Indonesia should act, and the neighbours will support

Updated On: May 18, 2007

Indonesia, home to the second largest natural rainforest in the world has for the past decade been overwhelmed with forest and land fires and its attendant haze problem.  While it is true some fires will occur naturally during the dry season; especially when the El-Nino cycle comes to pass, there are human induced fires that can and have to be controlled. Since the worst hit in 1997, the fires and haze have been an annual “ritual” affecting the health and livelihood of the peoples in the region.

The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) is a regional mechanism which attempts to address the problem and is intended to be beneficial to all parties, Indonesia as the major source of haze pollution as well as the neighboring countries affected by the haze. However after the ASEAN countries includingIndonesia signed it 5 years ago, it is yet to be ratified by Indonesian parliament. A workshop jointly organized by Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia tried to engage stakeholders in Indonesia in better understanding and determining practical implementation of the ASEAN Agreement, should it be ratified by Indonesia.

The recurring haze does not mean that Indonesia has done nothing. Some efforts have been made, at local level, close to the haze affected areas and at national policy level. However, the stakeholders’ notions are still divided.

There is increasing recognition that the fire and haze primarily affect Indonesia, and are therefore issues that the country must address for its own good and those of its citizens.  This is at least the points taken by the Indonesian NGOs and local officials, 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. The 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 especially corporate spokesmen - put the blame on the small scale, traditional farmers.  However, while determining the parties responsible for the fires and addressing them are important, the issue of ratifying the treaty need to be viewed in its own right.  Rizal Sukma, Deputy Executive Director, CSIS believes that ratification of the treaty is important because it concerns the environment as well as Indonesia’s foreign policy and its international image.

“It is not right to think that we do not need to ratify the ASEAN haze treaty. It is important, not only in the context of haze but in Indonesia’s foreign policy particularly Indonesia’s position in ASEAN. Even if we want to look at it in haze context, ratification is important. It will give additional pressure to the government to take concrete actions in solving the problem. So, there is a collective pressure at regional level. It is not only about Indonesia, but it relates to regional obligations thatIndonesia has to fulfill.”

According to RizalIndonesia is facing serious global image problem after being recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records as the country which pursues the highest rate of deforestation -- with 1.8 million hectares of forest destroyed each year, from 2000 to 2005. Indonesia’s lack of seriousness in tackling the haze problem may devolve its global image.

The Minister of Forestry, MS Kaban, whose speech was read out by his special adviser Sutino Wibowo, demanded the haze issue to be linked to other comprehensive environmental problems such as illegal logging. This sentiment is also shared by many members of parliament. However, the Ministry of Environment is pushing for the ratification process as it believed that it is important to address the haze issues on its own.  Most NGOs working in the area as well as local government also supported the efforts to tackle haze problem on the ground.  Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs expressed his puzzlement why Indonesian members of parliament seemed to lack seriousness in tackling the haze problem.

Executive Director of WWF Indonesia, Mubariq Ahmad admitted that the ratification issue has become politicised.  Although he did not refuse the ASEAN mechanism, with his economics background, he emphasized more on economic transaction as solution to the haze problem. He believes that avoiding deforestation under the Kyoto Protocol is an attractive alternative.

The supporters of the Agreement acknowledge that while it is an important marker and useful mechanism, it is no panacea. Regional support will be needed.SingaporeMalaysia and other neighbours have agreed under the ASEAN agreement to put seed money into the Haze Control Fund. The haze however has been a long standing problem that deserves priority attention and the ASEAN Haze Agreement is an important step that should be supported. (17 May 2007)

Sources:

Help fight illegal logging: Indonesia. It wants countries in region to do their bit, in return for ratification of Asean haze pact (Straits Times, 12 May 2007)

Pro and Contra of ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, Sinar Harapan, (14 May 2007)

Efforts have been made, is ratification still needed?, Radio Singapore International, (14 May 2007)

Indonesia faces serious global image problem, Op-ed by Rizal Sukma, Deputy Director 

of CSIS (Jakarta Post, 14 May 2007)    

Return of the Haze, Op-ed by Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA  (Today, 17 May 2007)

Indonesian NGOs and Local Officials Want Haze Stopped, Letter to Editor (Straits Times, 17 May 2007)