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News Brief - Regional Civic Institutions Discuss Effective Cooperation to Deal with Transboundary Haze Pollution

Updated On: Oct 17, 2006

20 Oct 2006– Some 20 representatives of regional civil society organizations yesterday met inSingapore to dialogue on critical issues surrounding the current haze pollution that is adversely affecting countries in Southeast Asia. Participants came from MalaysiaSingaporeIndonesia,Thailand and Brunei.

The meeting, organized by the SIIA with its partners, CSIS-Indonesia and ISIS-Malaysia, was a response to growing concern and dissatisfaction in Indonesia’s neighbouring countries with what is seen as complacent inaction on the part of the Indonesian government. It was also an attempt to identify and recommend key efforts and actions that regional NGOs can cooperate on, while also urging their home governments to effectively implement commitments made.

In discussing the causes and impact of the haze on communities in ASEAN countries, participants all agreed that ‘finger-pointing’ in any context would not be useful. SIIA chairman Simon Tay, ISIS chairman Dato’ Seri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, and CSIS senior fellow, and former ambassador, Wiryono Sastrohandoyo emphasized that appearing to single out Indonesia would not achieve the best result. What was needed was a supportive environment to help the country overcome its problem. Dato’ Jawhar Hassan pointed to the slew of challenges Indonesiahad faced in recent times, from terrorism to natural disasters like the tsunami and earthquake, to ongoing tensions in Aceh, to the creeping spread of avian flu, and called for understanding and contextualizing of the haze problem within this broader picture. “The resources required to solve this are simply too much for any one country to handle,” he said, adding that Indonesia’s neighbours should treat the issue as one requiring a shared responsibility and pooling of resources to best address it.”

Ambassador Wiryono added that Indonesia’s political dynamics were a contributing factor to the government’s seemingly limited action on the issue. He said that, for example, ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze dragged on, because this needed to go through parliament, and since Indonesia was still a nascent democracy, it was difficult to obtain consensus between the executive and legislative branches of the government. Although this was no excuse he said, the haze was only one of the country’s problems, and regional and international support was critical to help resolve them.

The 2006 haze is the worst since 1997-1998. Recurrent in Kalimantanand Riau and caused by fires to clear land, it is predominantly of man-made origin, although exacerbated by climate change. Faisal Parish, director of the Global Environment Center in Malaysia pointed to peat lands as the chief concern – “A conservative figure of 60% of the haze pollution is being caused by burning of just 20% of peat land. Because of the nature of peat, the fact that it can burn persistently for 3 to 6 months and produces more smoke per hectare than other land, clearly, tackling peat lands must be a priority”, he said.

Participants called attention to the fires as a matter of serious regional and global significance, warning that the problem was not transitory. Future fires may well recur, and could potentially be more severe and damaging in scale and duration. As such, although there was a need for immediate measures such as fire-fighting, prevention efforts were just as important, if not more so.

Simon Tay said that, notwithstanding the fact that the most direct victims of the haze were Indonesians themselves, Indonesia must take the lead in dealing with prevention, while operating simultaneously within a cooperative regional environment. In fact, such regional cooperation required thatIndonesia be at the center of efforts. Participants agreed that government contributions to the Control Fund established as part of the ASEAN Agreement, would be the right gesture of support and shared responsibility, but only if Indonesia also provided concrete plans to be funded and the political will to see implementation through.

Of the solutions proposed - in terms of what more can be done by the NGO community - targeted interventions were favoured by most NGOs present. All called for more information, such as on satellite monitoring, land ownership and investment interests, to be shared as widely as possible with and among NGOs and local communities across the region. In addition, it was evident that an updated study on the impact of the haze on industry, health and other socio-economic sectors was necessary, since the most recent figures were from a study conducted in 1997-1998.

Frances Seymour, Director General of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), based in Indonesia, emphasized that fire-prevention activities should be targeted at the times, locations, and types of burning that produces the most haze – especially peat fires -- in order to maximize the impact of measures implemented. She cautioned though that there was a need to be careful that efforts did not put an undue cost on poor communities that were least able to bear the burden, saying that when crackdowns on forest crime have taken place, ‘those prosecuted were often the little guys and not the big companies.’ She further suggested that NGOs target the financiers of companies responsible for illegal burning.

Several participants agreed that NGOs could help to identify those responsible for the haze, while noting the limitations in gathering data and pinpointing actual culprits given the extensive supply chains of many firms. Instead of just shaming corporate offenders through public naming or lawsuits, however, it was also important to engage with these companies in the interest of finding solutions to stop negative practices. It would also be useful to highlight companies which were good examples of best practice, and to work with local authorities and communities to develop sustainable community-based approaches to prevention.

NGOs agreed that dialogue, at national and regional levels was invaluable, both within the NGO community, but also between civil society and government authorities. They urged that reviews of action and implementation by government bodies also invite regular discussion and consultation with experts and civil society groups, to obtain a more holistic and concerted effort in reducing, and eventually removing the problem.

17 Oct 2006– The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), and its partners, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS),Indonesia, and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia, will hold a dialogue with civil society organizations and think-tanks from the region to discuss the transboundary haze pollution that is currently affecting countries in Southeast Asia.

The dialogue, initiated by the SIIA, intends to review the impact and causes of the haze pollution and the efforts taken to date; to consider and recommend new and additional ways to resolve the current stalemate of fire prevention and control; and to promote policy, cooperation among civil society actors, and public advocacy to address the issue.

The haze pollution, a result of land and forest fires in Indonesia, hit particularly hard during the weekend of 6-7 October 2006, as Indonesian officials reported 1,496 hot spots in Sumatraand 2,075 hot spots in Kalimantan. While the haze woes had already begun early this March, the latest bout has worsened, triggering a host of problems disrupting health, education, tourism, air traffic and other economic and social activities. Indonesia,SingaporeMalaysiaBruneiand Thailand have all been affected, and there are reports of the haze even affecting islands in the Pacific.

This is the worst episode of haze since 1997-1998 when the region, especially Indonesia, was estimated to have suffered some US$9 billion (S$14 billion) in business disruptions and other costs. In the near decade since then, Indonesiaand fellow ASEAN member states have sought to address the problem and have taken steps to strengthen the institutional systems and processes to address the issue. Indonesiahas strengthened its system of laws to ban the use of fires to clear land, but illegal burning has continued while the country strains to enforce its laws.

An ASEAN Agreement on the issue is in force, to create binding legal obligations to cooperate on fighting the pollution. While Indonesia has not yet ratified the Agreement, ASEAN environmental ministers at an urgent meeting last week in Pekanbaru put pressure on the country to do so, even suggesting a delay in financial assistance if it does not.

To read the Chairman’s Statement, please see http://www.siiaonline.org/chairmans_statement_-_dialogue_on_southeast_asian_fires_and_haze

Read a news comment by SIIA’s Chairman, Simon Tay, published in the Straits Times, 14 Oct 2006 - ‘Stopping the Haze - Indonesia and ASEAN credibility 

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