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Transboundary haze pollution: More to be done to address heightened anger amidst helplessness

Updated On: Oct 10, 2006

The haze woes which begun early this March has reached a new height in recent weeks casting a new level of gloom with the various stakeholders expressing a range of emotions from anger to despair. 

The region was particularly hard-hit by the haze pollution last weekend, as Indonesian officials reported 1,496 hot spots in Sumatra and 2,075 hot spots inKalimantan. However, only around 60 to 70 per cent of the hot spots can be detected in Kalimantan by the satellite because of the thickness of the haze. According to Purwasto, head of forest fire control of Indonesia's environment ministry, Central Kalimantan is the worst disaster zone now with combustible peat dominating the area and burning for extended periods, generating thick smoke.

Malaysia’s worst-hit area of Sri Aman in Sarawak reached an unhealthy API level of 221 on October 6, while Johor Baru and Perak also recorded high API readings in the 150 range the following day. Kuala Lumpur and Penang were not spared either, and recorded moderate API levels. Singapore recorded its highest PSI reading of 150 in the last nine years on October 7, prompting the Health Ministry to issue an advice for people to stay indoors. Elsewhere, the haze also reached 3,600 kilometres (2,250 miles) to affect islands in the western Pacific.

Memories of the worst haze episode in 1997-8 which cost the region an estimated US$9 billion in business disruptions and triggered a series of problems related to health and education were rekindled this weekend with school closures, flight diversions, and a reported rise in respiratory illnesses in MalaysiaIndonesia andSingapore.

Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla has conceded helplessness in the wake of mounting pressures from the affected governments, and worse, anger from the other stakeholders in the region. 'Our only hope is for the rain to come and douse the flames...regional governors and leaders have been called up. Ministers have been ticked off several times by the President,' he said. 'What else can we do?'

Forestry ministry spokesman Masyud said at least 200 firefighters were trying to contain fires around the West Kalimantan provincial capital, Pontianak. The firefighters were also aided by police and volunteers who worked “round the clock”. Masyud however said that most of the fires are lit by rural farmers preparing the land for the planting season, and they fall outside state-owned forest areas, further compounding the problem. He also added that “we are absolutely doing our best to tackle this issue”.

Continuous burning and worsening haze pollution have generated strong reactions from neighbouring countries.  Malaysia. Malaysian Environment Minister Azmi Khalid said 'Frustration is an understatement. I was in Indonesia in June...They told me they had the systems to control the haze. It looks like their systems are not effective.' Minister Azmi also mentioned that there is no point talking anymore as Indonesian government is ‘well aware of the problem’. ‘What we need is action and enforcement,’ he said.

Malaysia is also pushing for Indonesia to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which was approved in 2002. Ratifying the agreement, according to Malaysian Environment Minister Azmi Khalid, would lead to the establishment of a regional coordinating centre that would provide a swifter response to the forest fires.

In response to reports circulated by Indonesian media that some of the culprits are Malaysian oil palm companies, Minister Azmi retorted that they will not be spared if found guilty and implored Indonesia to “impose the most severe penalties under their law to anyone found guilty”. Elsewhere, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui added that he had instructed the officers in the Malaysia-Indonesia joint committee on plantations and commodities to furnish him with details on companies carrying out open burning in Sumatra or Kalimantan. Currently there are 34 Malaysian companies operating in Kalimantanand Sumatra.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak also proposed for ASEAN countries to set up a sizeable fund to tackle the problem of open burning, without which, the problem would persist. Minister Najib opined that "They [Indonesian authorities] give a commitment but we believe that they lack the resources or have limited capacity. We must also sympathise with Indonesia because they already have many problems to tackle and their forests are so huge.” Thus far, according to Najib, there had been discussions on the joint fund but no agreement had been reached. Earlier, Najib also recommended for Asean member countries to set up a high-tech forest fire-fighting team to address the haze problem.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented at the annual Asian-European Editors' Forum that 'international cooperation' is needed when it comes to solving problems such as the haze. 'But there also has to be pressure from within each of the countries…Beyond that, other countries have different rules and different environments, and unfortunately what one country does affects other countries.’ Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim also commented that Singapore had offered help with cloud seeding to induce rain and table-top exercises to help farmers deal with land clearing, but Indonesia has yet to take up the offer.

NGOs blamed the lack of enforcement for the recurring problems.  'If the law is enforced and the culprits are punished severely, it would be a good deterrent and perhaps the fires will stop,' Mr Johnny Setiawan Mundung, executive director of environmental group Walhi Riau, told The Sunday Times. Dr Loh Chi Leong, Executive Director, Malaysian Nature Society, said: "We seemed to think once out of sight, out of mind, and then it's gone but it doesn't. I think if we do not address these problems, we can be sure that this will become a more increasing regular occurrence and probably will get worse and I would like to re-emphasise that despite what's said, there's no safe level for haze." Mr David Lee, technical officer at Global Environment Centre, also criticised that 'everyone gets worked up when the haze comes every year and a lot of talk takes place. But once it's over, everyone forgets about it’. Elsewhere, Greenpeace demanded that the government investigate companies that clear land by burning the forest, and hold them liable for the damage. They also hung a large banner in front of the ministry that read "Stop Forest Conversion", calling on Indonesian Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban to preserve the remaining forests rather than allowing them to be turned into agricultural and pulp projects.

Frustration on the ground was also palpable and its intensity unprecedented. Malaysians are sending emails and SMSes to local newspapers to vent their frustration. Commonly-asked questions range from ‘how many more years will it take for the Indonesians to solve the problem of forest fires and open burning?’ to ‘how much longer do we have to suffer?’ The Star’s headline on the haze is ‘fuming mad!’ while the New Straits Times had 'It's getting worse' on the cover. In Singapore, an irate doctor called The Sunday Times and said: 'They are hurting us, in terms of health and our economy. People are having respiratory problems...”  The public in both countries are also questioning the efforts by their own governments and ASEAN to tackle the problem, highlighting growing dissatisfaction that is borne in part out of confusion and helplessness against the disruptive haze.

Noting public anger, the pulp and paper industry was quick to absolve themselves of blame by claiming that they were committed to fighting the fires.  Sinar Mas for Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Raja Garuda Mas for Asia-Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd (APRIL) and among the world's biggest pulp and paper producers – claimed that "We use only mechanical methods to clear the land…" APP added that they have more than 600 trained fire officers and three full-time fire-suppression helicopters to patrol the forests and control fires. "Since 1996, APP has insisted that its fiber suppliers implement a strict no-burn policy," said company spokeswoman Aida Greenbury. But environmental groups insist burning is continuing in APRIL and APP concessions.

What is also noteworthy is that despite the frustrations, leaders from Malaysia and Singapore agreed with Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla‘s sentiment that nothing much else can be done at this moment. Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib also called for a stop to criticisms against Indonesia for failing to stop the forest fires. He said Indonesia would not be able to tackle the forest fires without the help of other Asean members.

What needs to be emphasised at this stage, arguably so because of the increasing sense of helplessness which breeds misunderstanding, is the new wave of discontent from the public and civil society groups in affected states that can grow and snowball.  Governments need to respond sensibly to this heightened anger and be seen to be actively addressing these problems whether at local, national or regional level or more troubles and conflicts may lie ahead.  

For Indonesia, besides the haze, the other evolving environment disaster, the mud flow from a drilling accident at a natural gas exploration site in Java, is also channelling anger to collusion between big business and politics.  Java’s mud nightmare is threatening the livelihood of an increasing number of people and will inevitably bring social conflict to a head if the government does not address the issue seriously.

Sources:

Indonesia dousing fires causing haze: forestry official (AFP/CNA, 6 October 2006)

The war of fog: industry insists it's fighting Asian haze (AFP/CNA, 6 October 2006)

Haze from forest fires thickens in region (AP/Reuters/The Star, 6 October 2006)

Choking haze continues billowing across region (Jakarta Post, 6 October 2006)

ASEAN must take joint action to tackle haze: Malaysian DPM (AFP/CNA, 7 October 2006)

Haze sparks demand for face masks and air purifiers (CNA, 7 October 2006)

Malaysians have had enough of haze woes (The Star, 7 October 2006)

Worsening haze forces closure of several Indonesian airports (CNA, 7 October 2006)

KL urges Jakarta to ratify haze pact (AP/The Straits Times, 8 October 2006)

Azmi: Malaysian firms should be punished if involved (The Star, 8 October 2006)

Haze anger, but Jakarta can't do more (The Straits Times, 8 October 2006)

Thousands stay at home as air quality turns bad (The Straits Times, 8 October 2006)

Singapore voices concern to Jakarta (The Straits Times, 8 October 2006)

Malaysians fume over recurring issue (The Star, 8 October 2006)

Call to move burning season to February (The Star, 8 October 2006)

Haze so thick, many hot spots are obscured (AFP/ The Star, 8 October 2006)

Chua: Stay indoors (The Star, 8 October 2006)

Tourism hardest hit (The Star, 8 October 2006)

More treated for breathing problems (The Star, 8 October 2006)

Burn the trees, face the flak (The Star, 8 October 2006)

Smoke worsens in SE Asia, health warning issued (Antara, 8 October 2006)

Java’s mud nightmare (Straits Times, 9 October 2006)

Big business and politics: Cosy status quo may be rocked (Straits Times, 9 October 2006)