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Internationalising the haze issue

Updated On: Nov 07, 2006

Months of haze diplomacy have reaped some results. Leading environment officials from the affected ASEAN member states explored breakthrough options at the Nov 2 regional workshop hosted by Indonesia which included direct intervention efforts by ASEAN countries in the country’s 35 fire-prone districts.

The Indonesian environment ministry also estimated the annual cost of fighting the haze to be 585 billion rupiah (S$100 million), covering the following measures:

  • Provide incentives to farmers to abandon slash-and-burn land clearing which is one of the main causes of the fires causing the haze.
  • Create more effective enforcement against plantation companies and forest concessionaries caught violating laws against indiscriminate burning to clear land.
  • Make it mandatory for plantations and companies to comply with firefighting regulations and help pay for firefighting equipment and personnel in their regions.
  • Establish a panel of experts.
  • Conduct water bombing and cloud-seeding operations when they are most effective, during the early stages of the fires.
  • Develop an emergency response system.
  • Form the ASEAN Haze Fund and hold joint taskforces in fire prevention and suppression.

The action plan – amid assurance by Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar that ninety per cent of the fires have been put out – received positive feedback from the attendees. Dr Raman Letchumanan, head of ASEAN Secretariat's Environment and Disaster Management Unit, said, ‘it's very clear from the presentation and their action points that they have a very targeted immediate goal - certainly there is a greater commitment here.’ But what remains to be seen is how the plan translates into action, he added. Lee Yuen Hee, chief executive officer of Singapore's National Environment Agency, described the discussions as comprehensive and noted that the plans were a good basis to solve the problem.

The action plan will be discussed further by senior ASEAN officials in Cebu on November 15, a day before ASEAN ministers hold a special meeting on the haze. The plan would then be submitted for endorsement at the ASEAN Summit in December, and be operational by early next year.

However, Singapore’s recent diplomatic maneuver – raising the issue at the United Nations General Assembly on October 20 – may forestall such promising developments. Singapore diplomat Kevin Cheok said Indonesia's annual forest fires have global as well as regional consequence, and thus 'require global action'. 'The scale and severity of the problem means ASEAN will require international assistance, including from the UN,' he said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added on November 5 that affected ASEAN nations should seek expertise from the international community to help resolve the haze problem. PM Lee maintained that Singapore would continue to work with Indonesia and ASEAN on a long-term action plan, but the problem was so severe that there was also a need to bring in other countries and organisations to tackle the urgent problem together. International experts in particular, can lend their expertise to dealing with difficult peat fires and alternative land-clearing methods.

Indonesia responded negatively as the Indonesian representative at the UN committee, Ms Adiyatwidi Adiwoso Asmady, characterised Singapore's call for international assistance as 'badgering'. It 'is tantamount to interference in the domestic affairs of Indonesians', she added.

According to The Straits Times senior writer Janadas Devan, Ms Adiyatwidi also went on to suggest that there might be 'some malice' behind Singapore's statement to the UN committee; that there were other 'issues related to environmental degradation that also need to be addressed - such as the export of hazardous waste, illegal logging and sand-mining'; and that Singapore should 'cease to give protection, safety and sanctuary for corruptors and their ill-gotten wealth'.  In his article, Janadas also tried to explain why the haze required concerted international efforts.  Indonesia’s devastating fire is contributing to global warming and hence warrants the international attention and scaling up of aid efforts beyond ASEAN, much like the December 2004 tsunami disaster. According to the Netherlands-based Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, the country has jumped to third place from 21st behind the United States and China as the world's top contributor of greenhouse gasses because of its clearing and burning of peatland areas. ASEAN, according to the Janadas, also stands to lose its credibility if response to the issue is not heightened.

As another sign of Indonesians’ unhappiness, Indonesia's Industry Minister Fahmi Idris boycotted a meeting of the Indonesia-Singapore joint steering committee on the Batam, Bintan and Karimun special economic zones. ‘I did not attend the meeting in protest of Singapore's step to table the haze issue at the UN General Assembly, though Singapore has previously agreed to tackle the problem at ASEAN level,’ said Mr Fahmi. ‘As a Cabinet minister, I also feel offended by Singapore's statement at the General Assembly that the (Indonesian) President, his ministers, the House of Representatives and the provincial administrations are not solid in tackling the spread of the haze,’ he added.

In response to the unhappiness expressed by the Indonesians, Singapore Ambassador to Indonesia Ashok Mirpuri had written to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry to defend Singapore’s move to raise haze issue at the UN. This was done with the intention of mobilising international support as the haze is now beyond Indonesia’s and ASEAN’s capabilities “to snuff out on their own”.  Singapore also assured Indonesia that it is ready to support Indonesia’s leadership on the issue and will help with mobilising international expertise and resources.

Elsewhere on the issue of venturing beyond state-level action to deal with the haze, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) Chairman Simon Tay reiterated the importance of NGOs in providing good ‘ear-to-the-ground monitoring’, towards exposing culpability for the fires and raising public awareness, an area which ASEAN governments require assistance in.

Aside from current rifts in haze diplomacy, a further stumbling block can be seen in reports of domestic conflict between President SBY and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, especially over the former’s establishment of a presidential working team on September 29 for program, policy and reform management (UPK3R).

Vice-President Kalla had said on November 3 that he had convinced Yudhoyono that the new working unit was not necessary. ‘I and the President agree that the Cabinet already has a built-in system of coordination. I will coordinate the implementation of programs, the details of them, and the ministers will do the rest. There's no need to have more people doing that,’ he said after opening a Golkar Party convention.

Some political observers see the creation of the team as an effort by Yudhoyono to encroach on Kalla's domain on economic issues, which the two leaders had earlier agreed to leave it to the latter’s purview. Kalla’s lack of support for Yudhoyono’s current initiative can be seen from his absence at events related to UPK3R. Elsewhere, Golkar especially at the time of finalising its 2009 election campaign strategy, has warned it could withdraw its support from Yudhoyono, saying he had disrespected their chairman and that the people chosen for the effort – in particular, Marsilam Simanjuntak as its chairman – were not of good quality.

However, other critics also saw the unlikelihood of UPK3R deflecting Kalla's authority as it neither has the power nor the political leverage to do so, and attributed the move to Yudhoyono's bad timing and poor communication, a persistent mark of his presidency.

Given such disturbances, ASEAN member states need to be more watchful and avoid creating new ones.

Sources:

Asean officials back Jakarta's anti-haze plan (The Straits Times, 3 November 2006)

90% of fires now out, says minister (Reuters/The Straits Times, 3 November 2006)

A clear and vital role for NGOs in anti-haze drive (The Straits Times, 4 November 2006)

Haze: Why Jakarta should accept international help (The Straits Times, 4 November 2006)

SBY - Kalla rift bursts into open (The Jakarta Post, 4 November 2006)

Rift? What rift? Behind SBY-JK's latest quarrel (The Jakarta Post, 6 November 2006)

Asean needs help to tackle haze: PM (The Straits Times, 6 November 2006)

Indon minister skips S'pore meet 'in protest' (The Straits Times, 6 November 2006)

Why minister boycotted talks with Singapore (The Straits Times, 6 November 2006)

RI ranked third for greenhouse emissions (The Jakarta Post, 6 November 2006)

Singapore defends move to raise haze issue at UN (The Straits Times, 7 November 2006)

Why Singapore brought up the issue (The Straits Times, 7 November 2006)