ASEAN haze meeting ends on ‘disappointing, bewildering’ note

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 5 May 16;

SINGAPORE — A meeting of five Association of South-east Asian (ASEAN) nations here on Wednesday (May 4) to discuss transboundary haze pollution ended on an unexpected note, when a senior Indonesian official declined to take questions at a media conference after the meeting, saying there would be a separate press conference in Jakarta.

The five countries had earlier agreed to conduct a new study to assess the impact of the 2015 haze on the region.

The Indonesia official’s move prompted Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) to issue a media reply in the evening, calling it “disappointing and bewildering”.

MEWR said it was “just as surprised as everyone else” when Mr Arief Yuwono, senior adviser to the minister for energy at Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said a press conference would be held in Jakarta.

This was not disclosed earlier and MEWR “agreed that it was a disappointing and bewildering development, but did not want to speculate as to what this meant for cooperation on haze among the (five) countries”.

Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar did not attend the meeting, which was held at the Marina Mandarin hotel.

Last month, Ms Siti Nurbaya told Singapore to focus on its own role in addressing the haze issue instead of “making so many comments”.

Her comments — the latest in a series of critical remarks by an Indonesian minister — were in response to Mr Masagos’ statement that agro-forestry companies should take full responsibility for fire prevention and mitigation in their concessions, and that there must not be a repeat of last year’s forest fires which caused the haze.

Besides Mr Arief and Singapore’s Environment Minister Masagos Zulkifli, the 18th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution was attended by Thailand’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Surasak Karnjanarat, Malaysia’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Hamim Samuri, Brunei’s Deputy Minister of Development Suhaimi Gafar and ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.

The new study on the economic, health and social impact of last year’s haze episode will be conducted to obtain baseline data to understand its impact, stated a media release after Wednesday’s meeting.

The ministers tasked the ASEAN Secretariat to collate information from the five countries “in accordance with their national laws and regulations”.

Mr Masagos hoped the study would be done “quickly” and expected to have “something substantive” within a year. Countries collect different data, he said.

Singapore has figures on the haze’s impact on tourism. Figures from Indonesia could include the reduction in the crop yield.

The 2015 forest fires — caused by the rampant torching of peatland and other areas in Indonesia — were a “very important incident and very instructive for us to learn from”, Mr Masagos said.

An expert had estimated that between September and Oct 26 last year, daily greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia’s fires exceeded daily emissions from the United States economy — 20 times the size of Indonesia’s — on 38 days.

One development at the meeting cited by Mr Masagos was the agreement by the five countries to share hotspot information, as specified in the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedure for Monitoring, Assessment and Joint Emergency Response.

The ministers tasked a technical task force to work out the mode in which information would be shared. They also agreed to continue working towards operationalising the sub-regional haze monitoring system.

From May 30 to June 1, a peat fire management workshop to “train the trainer” will be held in Pontianak in West Kalimantan. It will be co-hosted by Indonesia and Singapore.

Mr Minh said the Secretariat’s priorities include the effective implementation of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution to be hosted by Indonesia, and work on a roadmap towards a haze-free ASEAN by 2020.

Dry weather conditions are expected for Sumatra and Kalimantan between June and early October this year, but the region could expect normal or above-normal rainfall in the third quarter.

The five ASEAN countries pledged to remain vigilant and step up haze prevention efforts to minimise the chances of transboundary haze.

Last month, the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, Mr Nazir Foead, had said at a conference in Singapore that there is “zero chance” that any haze this year will be as severe as last year’s episode, given how seriously Indonesia is taking action to prevent fires from happening.

For instance, Indonesian President Joko Widodo had announced a moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations, and had vowed in January to sack local military and police chiefs for uncontrolled fires in their provinces.

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