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Plugging gaps in the law to fight haze

haze-fires

19 Sep Plugging gaps in the law to fight haze

The haze law passed by Singapore last month to punish polluters who cause the haze could have been put to its first test if the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) had stayed above 100 for a few more hours early this week.

Many of us in Singapore woke up on Monday to an acrid smell in the air as north-easterly winds sent clouds of smoke from South Sumatra our way. Residents in the western part of the island bore the brunt of the bad air, with the PSI hovering in the unhealthy range from 6am to 12am — just six hours short of what would have constituted a “poor air quality episode” as set out in the new Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

No legal action could be taken this time as the episode did not last for 24 hours or longer. But even if the haze had persisted, how enforceable is our new law? Could we have identified the likely culprits in the first place?

TECHNOLOGY BRINGS TRANSPARENCY?

A quick check on Global Forest Watch-Fires could give us a startlingly clear idea of who might be responsible. The online forest fires monitoring system, which was jointly launched by Indonesia’s National REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) Agency and the United States-headquartered World Resources Institute (WRI), shows that most fire alerts from the Indonesian island of Sumatra were detected in the Ogan Komering Ilir regency.

It could also tell us that a huge number of fire alerts — about 140 of them — were found in one pulpwood concession in the district of Tulung Selapan. The suspected firm is known to be a main supplier to a huge pulp and paper manufacturer, and has in the past been accused of clearing high carbon stock forests for commercial plantations.

Given the availability of such analyses that is publicly available on-the-fly, one might think the prosecutor’s job would be made easier. In reality, however, the concession data hosted on such tracking systems can be highly disputable even if they were to come from official sources. Local governments and companies are known to have different interpretations of concession boundaries. The complexity is aggravated when the boundaries overlap, which blurs the line of responsibilities.

During the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ (SIIA) recent visit to Jakarta, we were reminded of the difficulties in pinning responsibility even with access to official maps and advances in satellite technology.

For instance, the Jakarta-based WRI team told us they were quite sure of a certain pulpwood supplier’s liability after their monitoring system detected a high density of hot spots in its concession in July. But when the team later studied the ultra-high resolution satellite images of the pulpwood concession in question, it saw only oil palm covers. Hence, the more likely culprits could be illegal encroachers who had razed the neglected concession to plant their own crops.

In such a scenario, the pulpwood supplier can defend itself against both criminal charges and civil claims if it could prove that the encroachers had acted without its knowledge or consent. And while the encroachers could theoretically be summoned to a Singapore court, they are unlikely to show up to fight the charges if they are small- or medium-sized plantation owners with no physical presence here.

This example demonstrates a clear limit of the haze law. Without eyes and ears on the ground, successful prosecution is hard to come by. Having a reliable network of verifiers on the ground is crucial as robust evidence is needed for the law to be applied.

Thankfully, many environmental activists and land rights lawyers that we met during our recent trips to Indonesia and Malaysia said they would be happy to help plug the information gap. Many recognised that their own communities would stand to benefit the most from such a legal deterrent, although some still had doubts over the real extent of the extraterritorial reach of the haze law. The SIIA will gather these representatives in Singapore this November to explore ways for more effective cooperation.

ASEAN UNITED ON HAZE

More encouragingly, not only has Indonesia stepped up its enforcement, as seen in the recent string of arrests, it has also broken a 12-year stalemate to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze on Tuesday.

As recently as March, two political parties in Indonesia’s Parliament were still disinclined to support the haze pact, citing concerns over potential sovereignty violations. The unanimous ratification thus came as a welcome surprise, particularly after years of lobbying by regional think-tanks, including the SIIA.

The move marks an important milestone for cooperation among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as Indonesia is sending a clear statement that it is ready to work with its neighbours to tackle the long-standing public health crisis and diplomatic sore point.

This will make it easier for some member states to channel resources to agencies that are actively monitoring fires on the ground, but have no easy access to corporate funding due to the unpopular whistle-blowing nature of their work.

Closer cooperation among member states may also encourage governments that have been reluctant to share their land use data to make them available — at least selectively — for the operationalisation of the ASEAN joint haze monitoring system.

If such is the case, the Singapore haze law would not exist as a regulation with no teeth.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Chua Chin Wei is deputy director and fellow for ASEAN business and sustainability and Cheong Poh Kwan is a policy research analyst at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. The institute will be hosting a haze roundtable on Nov 6. This article was originally published on TODAY on 19 SEP 2014.