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Mobilizing Mass Efforts to Fight the Haze in Southeast Asia

27 Nov Mobilizing Mass Efforts to Fight the Haze in Southeast Asia

The recent haze crisis has set a few new records in the region. Given the massive human and environmental costs, it will go down in history as one of the worst environmental disasters in Southeast Asia. The Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has labelled it “a crime against humanity.” The carbon emissions from the forest fires are said to have exceeded those produced by the United States since early September. President Joko Widodo’s government has also estimated that this episode of haze will cost the country as much as US$33.5 billion, or Rp475 trillion—a staggering amount compared to the estimated US$9 billion bill incurred in 1997, when the first incidence of severe transboundary haze pollution occurred.

Besides the high costs, another less mentioned effect of the haze has been the blossoming of a genuine civil-society movement in the region against transboundary haze pollution. From humanitarian relief to advocacy, civic groups in countries that are most affected by the smog, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, are taking a stand against the haze and making their voices heard. Last month, Indonesian actresses Alya Rohali and Zaskia Sungkar, and singer Yuni Shara were among the Indonesian celebrities who supported the “Movement for a Million Oxygen Tanks,” a collaborative project with non-profit foundation Rumah Pandai Indonesia. Centered on the haze victims on Sumatra and Kalimantan, which is Indonesian Borneo, the project aims to distribute pure oxygen tanks, face masks, eyedrops and a supply of milk for children. Humanitarian organization, Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) is now into its second emergency response operation following efforts first launched right after the haze began. With the help of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, the US Red Cross as well as the Australian Red Cross, the operations target the seven worst-hit provinces in Indonesia, including South Sumatra, Jambi, Riau and various parts of Kalimantan. In addition to several ambulances, mobile clinics, blood donation units and emergency posts, the PMI will also offer specialized medical treatment for vulnerable groups.

Besides direct humanitarian relief, Indonesian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are leveraging on their proximity to the ground and their extensive networks to provide a system of checks and balances. This could help prevent government agencies and large companies from abusing their power and influence, or shirking their responsibility. One example is Eyes on the Forest (EoF), a coalition of three local environmental organizations in Riau Province on Sumatra. Comprising Jikalahari (“Forest Rescue Network Riau”), WALHI (“Friends of the Earth Indonesia”) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo Program, the coalition works to investigate the state of Riau’s forests and its influential players.

To allow for easier monitoring of fires in concession areas, EoF has made fire hotspots data and satellite images available on its interactive map. In September 2015, Indonesia’s largest pulp and paper company, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), claimed that more than 90 percent of fires were started outside its supplier concessions. EoF has challenged this position, at least for some concessions, as its satellite imagery identified fires in and around concessions of four APP suppliers. Moreover, for one concession, EoF observed fires spreading from inside APP supplier’s concession to the outside. This raises doubts on APP’s zero-burning commitment and its legal compliance in terms of fire prevention.

The scope for civil society intervention, however, is not confined to groups based only in Indonesia. Neighboring countries have also witnessed efforts by their own domestic NGOs to combat the extra-territorial fires and haze.

Last month, several Malaysian Malay-Muslim NGOs expressed their intent to file a class action lawsuit against companies that are responsible for the fires in Indonesia. The eventual number of non-governmental organizations involved in the lawsuit could reach as high as 250, representing an estimated one million consumers. While the groups are at the “fact-finding” stage, their announcement shows that ordinary citizens now see themselves as empowered and entitled to a solution for the haze problem. They have become less willing to simply rely on government intervention to address the crisis and injustice. Many Singaporeans are also turning their frustration and dissatisfaction with the existing situation into a force for change. With a common goal to tackle the perceived gaps in the current system, some civil society groups have undertaken initiatives of varying forms and scope with the private sector forming an inescapable part of the solution.

In Indonesia, large companies and small-scale farmers alike are often blamed for fires on peatlands that result in dense and acrid smoke. Despite being nationally outlawed, fires are often favored as a means to clear land and make way for plantations because they are fast and cheap. But the significant environmental costs and backlash from some NGOs have seen a rising number of large plantation companies establishing a zero-burning policy to protect their reputations.

Yet, this has not entirely shielded large plantation companies from scrutiny. Apart from allegations of hotspots in some concession areas such as those raised by EoF, Singapore’s authorities are also looking into some companies suspected to be behind Indonesia’s forest fires, including the APP. Although investigations are still pending, some civil society groups such as the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) have used their influence and resources to implement punitive measures. A Singapore-based NGO focusing on sustainable urbanization, the SEC has temporarily suspended APP’s exclusive distributor Universal Sovereign Trading’s use of their green label. The Singapore Green Label endorses products that are environmentally friendly. Following this, supermarket chains NTUC Fairprice, Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket have all pulled APP products from their shelves.

Besides boycotts, some civil society groups are also directing more efforts towards greening the supply chains of companies. The SEC and the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) for instance, have reached out to over 3,000 companies to have them commit and declare that they source their wood, paper and/or pulp inputs sustainably. As of the end of October, 110 companies became signatories to the declaration.

While some NGOs leverage on media and public pressure to drive commitment on green procurement, others focus on establishing an economic case. A case in point is the recent haze campaign, “We breathe what we buy,” which was jointly launched by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore, PM.Haze and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Started this July, the campaign aims to educate Singaporeans on sustainable practices in palm oil production and aims to gather 50,000 pledges over the next few months. The public pledges, meant to reflect domestic demand for sustainable palm oil, will then be used as a basis for future corporate engagements to encourage the adoption and use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

Achieving consensus among companies to be more discerning in how they procure their inputs will be central to combating the use of fires. But larger structural problems will also have to be dealt with, or the burning of forests and peatlands will not go away. This includes the persistent land disputes, conflicting rules as well as widespread corruption.

Therefore, public dialogue and long-term policy advocacy are necessary to ensure the haze crisis remains on the top of the agenda. One may be inclined to ignore or dismiss the transboundary haze pollution as a fleeting environmental problem once the sky clears, but doing so will only risk another haze episode in the future, and the potentially severe and widespread damage it might bring.

At the same time, civil society is not a silver bullet by itself and cooperation with other stakeholders is key. Since 1997, the SIIA has been bringing together civil society, policy makers, and corporations to work together to stop the haze. Organized by the SIIA, the annual Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources (SDSWR) for instance, serves as a platform to share best practices, announce new commitments, recognize remaining challenges and encourage closer cooperation in broader issues of resource management in the region.

The second SDSWR in May 2015 provided a platform for Arief Yuwono, former Indonesian deputy minister for environmental degradation control and climate change to share news about the extension of the country’s moratorium on the clearing of primary forests and peatland on the day of its expiration. The SDSWR is further complemented by smaller-scale events such as the SIIA’s haze roundtable. This year’s roundtable, organized in May 2015, explored the role and effectiveness of current innovations and technologies such as drones and forest monitoring and alert systems. Collectively, the SDSWR and haze roundtable play a different role from other ground efforts, as they are one of the few and key initiatives aimed at fostering cooperation between NGOs and civil society across borders. While seemingly disparate and often small in scale, efforts to tackle the haze and its ill effects by civil society groups in the region deserve credit, particularly in cases where the authorities or companies may be slow or unwilling to act.

As the haze crisis continue testing the limits of Indonesia’s political leadership and its ability to stop the burning, it may well be left to civil society groups to deliver on the critical needs of the people and to fight the fires on the ground.


Lee Chen Chen and Lau Xin Yi are Director (Policy Programs) and Executive (Sustainability), respectively, at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This article was originally published in Thinking ASEAN, Issue 5, November 2015, published by The Habibie Center. A PDF download of the full issue is available online.


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