Haze-hit nations say ASEAN meet unlikely to clear the air

Channel NewsAsia 15 Jul 13;

KUALA LUMPUR: Officials from five Southeast Asian nations met Monday to discuss the hazardous smog that blights the region every year, but the worst-hit countries have held out little hope of an early solution.

The officials from the ASEAN countries that form the bloc's "haze committee" began two-day talks on Indonesian forest fires, before their environment ministers meet Wednesday.

Forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in June left neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia choking on the worst haze in more than a decade.

The air pollution deterred tourists, forced schools to close and caused a spike in respiratory illnesses.

But the two worst-hit nations and green activists hold out little hope of a significant outcome from this week's meeting.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted in early July the forest fires in Indonesia would take "a very long time" to eradicate because of the country's sheer size.

"I know that there will be a spirit of cooperation but I think solving the haze issue will take a very long time, with the best will in the world," he said.

Malaysia's environment minister Palanivel Govindasamy refused to be drawn on immediate solutions to the haze which sent pollution levels to a 16-year high, forcing a state of emergency in two southern districts.

"Our job is to work closely with Indonesia and our ASEAN partners on the haze meeting. Once an agreement is reached we can go forward," he told AFP, after stressing "long-term solutions" would be the focus of the meeting.

The three nations along with Brunei and Thailand have met on 14 previous occasions since 2006, but have little to show for it.

Willem Rampangilei, Indonesia's deputy coordinating minister of people's welfare, said fighting haze was a "national priority" for his country and it would take legal action against slash and burn offenders.

"Of course this is our wish ... there will be no more haze," he told AFP on the sidelines of the meeting.

Asked if those causing the smog would be prosecuted, he said: "Sure, sure, sure."

Yeah Kim Leng, group chief economist of RAM Holdings, said the haze crisis would have a "serious knock" on regional economies if not resolved.

"We need to find a permanent solution. If not, it will have a serious impact on tourism which is a key foreign exchange earner for Malaysia and Singapore," he said.

The main obstacle appears to be internal Indonesian politics, because slash-and-burn remains the cheapest -- albeit illegal -- way to clear land for agriculture.

Jakarta has sought parliament's approval to ratify a 2002 pact on haze pollution which has been signed by all its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But the proposal was rejected in 2008.

The treaty has been resubmitted to the current legislature, although no timeline for ratification has been given.

Singapore and Malaysia have demanded Indonesia punish those behind the blazes.

But Jakarta says some fires have been set in plantations owned by its neighbours, especially Malaysian palm oil firms.

An analysis by the World Resources Institute of the mid-June haze revealed that half of the fire alerts in Sumatra were in oil palm and pulpwood plantations.

"It is highly likely that severe burning seasons like the one we have seen over the past several weeks will be repeated," it warned.

The haze has been a bone of contention in ASEAN for nearly two decades, with the worst haze crisis in 1997-1998 estimated to have cost the region $9 billion.

- AFP/ac/gn

Clear skies in Dumai but for how long?
Authorities scale back anti-haze efforts, but fears of dry weather continue
Zakir Hussain Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta Straits Times 16 Jul 13;

AS SOLDIERS and firefighters from Jakarta pull out of Riau province and environment ministers from the region meet in Kuala Lumpur, life is back to normal for residents in Dumai, the Indonesian city at the epicentre of the region's worst haze to date.

Clear skies came just in time for the start of Ramadan last week. Said trishaw driver Ujang, 45, who has one name: "Thank God, the good weather has improved my takings, and made up for losses during the haze."

But, amid the bustle in the streets and markets, there are worries that any prolonged period of dry weather coming up, combined with the pullout of the heavy military and relief presence, may see open burning resume and take residents back to square one, disrupting their health and livelihood.

The national disaster authorities lifted emergency status last Thursday, 20 days after it was declared, but they will remain on the lookout for any recurrence until the dry season ends in October.

Four helicopters and an airplane for water-bombing and cloud-seeding sorties will remain in Riau in case fires flare up again, the National Disaster Management Agency said.

On Sunday, 226 Marines left Dumai for Jakarta in a gradual pullout of troops and police deployed to put out and investigate forest fires that, coupled with shifting wind patterns this year, sent pollution levels to record highs in Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.

Another 375 Marines sent to Bengkalis, one of the worst-hit regencies, were also pulled back.

Residents forced to relocate because of the haze have also returned home. Dumai resident Wan Umar Dani, 26, said he took his wife and their three-year-old son to neighbouring West Sumatra province for almost a month as he was concerned for their health.

"If it happens again, I will temporarily move again," he said, urging the authorities to keep a closer watch on plantations so the haze does not recur. "They have to act tough on land owners found to have carried out burning."

So far, only one land owner has been named a suspect.

Indonesian National Police spokesman Ronny Sompie told reporters last week that PT Adei Plantation and Industry, a subsidiary of Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), was allegedly responsible for illegally burning to clear land for cultivation.

Another 24 individuals have been identified as having started fires in Riau.

Yesterday, KLK took out an ad in the Jakarta Post in response to a report on its involvement.

It cited a local forestry official saying the fire was started in an area the company had set aside for conservation, but which the community living near its estates was trying to clear for cultivation.

Adei had in fact taken quick action to help douse the fire, it said.

Other pulp and paper companies cited as culpable by non-governmental outfits have issued similar rebuttals.

Meanwhile, the toll is just starting to be tallied up. The Riau Health Agency said at least 10,000 people have developed acute respiratory infections from the haze, more than half of them children under five years of age.

In a report on Indonesia's economy this month, the World Bank estimates the total cost and risk to the overall economic outlook from the haze is "likely to be in the billions of dollars", from resources deployed to put out the fires to degradation of forest and land assets.

It noted that the 1997-1998 haze episode cost South-east Asia some US$9 billion (S$11.4 billion).

"Today, with more sophisticated agriculture and tourism industries in place and higher population density in these areas, the economic losses could be even higher," the bank said.

But, as many in Riau note, the haze has become a persistent problem that is hard to pre-empt.

Clearing land is also a source of income for many and, with each dry season, some of the land will inevitably be burnt.

Additional reporting by Rezi Andika Putra in Dumai

Haze - A Legal Perspective
A news focus by Ismail Amsyar Mohd Said
Bernama 15 Jul 13;

KUALA LUMPUR, July 15 (Bernama) -- Malaysia, Singapore and other Asean nations have raised concerns over the dangers of the annual "migration" of haze from Indonesia to its neighbouring countries.

Amid the recent haze pollution which badly struck Malaysia and Singapore ,Asean countries have urged Indonesia to quickly ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (ATHP), which was signed in June 2002.

Indonesia is the only Asean member that has not ratified the agreement, which was enforced in November 2003, even though the country is singled out regularly as the "biggest contributor" to the transboundary haze problem.

Now, the question arises as to whether any legal action could be taken against Indonesia, in light of the recent haze, which was the worst-ever air pollution crisis in the region. In fact, the air pollution index (API) in Muar had skyrocketed to 746 � more than twice the standard hazardous level.

The haze spread to Malaysia and Singapore due to the forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Reports have stated that clearing land by burning forests is still practised in Indonesia despite a total ban by the government.

According to Dr Mohd Yazid Zul Kepli, Assistant Professor in the International Law department, International Islamic University s Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws, a positive aspect on the issue was that Indonesia has agreed to bring forward the Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution to July 15-17 from Aug 20-21.

Speaking to Bernama, he said that the legal aspect concerning the agreement could offer some remedies, but a comprehensive solution covering political, economic and social areas is also necessary.

He said that from a legal perspective, it was wrong to assume that a state is helpless when another state refuses to ratify an international environmental law.

"Countries are sovereign entities and cannot be dictated by others. But it doesn t mean that harmful actions should be tolerated, without providing legal remedies," he said.

He said under the domestic law, a house owner, who started a fire on purpose or by accident, would be liable for any loss or damage caused to the neighbours, noting that a similar doctrine has been developed in international law.

He cited the 1941 Trail Smelter dispute, which involved a smelter in Canada, where smoke from the smelter spread across the border, causing air pollution in the US. In this case, an international tribunal held Canada responsible for the environmental damage and ordered it to pay for the damages, he said.

According to Yazid, this is the fundamental principle of international environmental law � activities conducted in a state should not cause transboundary harm.

He further explained that while it is possible to bring Indonesia to the international court and claim for compensation, it is a challenging task as Indonesia s consent might be required for this purpose.

In such a situation, it is better to address the matter peacefully in a bilateral discussion and in a regional forum since claiming compensation from Indonesia is not necessarily a positive action.

According to Yazid, if a state fails to comply with the Asean agreement, it is considered to have breached international obligations. In this case, he believes that punishments should be in line with the nature of agreements.

However, no one can force any country to accept any international convention or agreement; once a country accepts an agreement voluntarily, the country should fulfill its obligation, he said.

The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution is the first regional arrangement in the world to bind a group of contiguous states to tackle transboundary haze problem that results from land and forest fires.

The agreement requires relevant parties to cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent, monitor, and mitigate transboundary haze; respond promptly to a request for relevant information sought by a state or states that are or may be affected by such transboundary haze problems; and take legal, administrative, or other measures to fulfill their obligations as per the agreement.

Explaining further on the legal aspect, a researcher at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Jakarta, Laely Nurhidayah, said that there were two international frameworks that can be used to address the transboundary haze pollution in the Asean region namely the customary international law and treaties.

The customary international law s framework involves the state responsibility s principles namely the duty to prevent transboundary pollution and duty to compensate, she said in her paper The Influence of International Law upon Asean Approaches in Addressing Transboundary Haze Pollution in the Asean Region.

Laely who is currently doing her Phd in Law at Macquarie University, Australia, had presented the paper at the 3rd National University of Singapore (NUS)-Asian SIL (Society of International Law) Young Scholars Workshop in 2012.

She made available the paper when contacted by Bernama on the haze issue.

She said that these principles, known as the no harm principle, state that: States have, in accordance with the Charter of United Nations and the principle of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.

The States also have the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

Legally, these principles can be effective in addressing the transboundary haze pollution problem because according to the principles, State has an obligation not to cause environmental damage to other countries and to pay compensation for the damage caused, she said.

However she said that the principles were constrained by the rule of State sovereignty, reflected in the Asean Way , especially in developing a State responsibility and liability system at regional level, which is not a politically viable option.

Laely quoted a statement by former Asean Secretary-General, Rodolfo Severino in 1999, who said that the 10-member Asean countries cannot sue polluting members, which are responsible for transboundary pollution because of the grouping s principle of non-intervention.

She said that Asean has adopted the customary international law no harm principle into its legal framework, particularly as stated in article 3(1) of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), but with the addition of the words harm to human health of other States .

Article 3(1) reads: The parties have, in accordance with the Charter of United Nations and the principle of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment and harm to human health of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

This agreement however does not contain any rule on State liability as to damage, she said citing Article 27 of the AATHP, which stated that any dispute between Parties as to the interpretation or application of, or compliance with, this Agreement or any protocol thereto, shall be settled amicably by consultation or negotiation.

Laely explained that Asean is relying more on prevention and cooperation measures rather than establishing a liability regime or adopting formal legal instruments to protect the environment in addressing shared environmental problems.

She also noted that the agreement does not directly forbid certain types of conduct but instead, merely encourages the parties to promote zero burning policies and reiterated that the provisions in the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution do not contain any obligation to make compensation.

With the meeting on the Transboundary Haze Pollution brought forward it is hoped that Asean will be able to tackle and take another look into the issue in the spirit of togetherness, so that there won't be anymore "finger-pointing."