Confusion clouds regional cooperation to fight haze

SIMON TAY AND LAU XIN YI Today Online 4 Sep 15;

It is clear that the haze from fires burning in Indonesia has returned and is worsening. On Tuesday last week (Aug 25), visibility in Palembang, the provincial capital of South Sumatra, was down to about 300m. The count of possible fire hot spots has risen and prevailing winds carry the haze to parts of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, where the Pollutant Standards Index, a measure of air quality, has been hovering between moderate and unhealthy.

Dry conditions will continue in the coming weeks. Some meteorologists even fear this can take a turn for the worse with an El Nino bringing prolonged drier and warmer weather. Last year, airports were forced to close in the Indonesian provinces of Riau as well as in Jambi. In 2013, haze levels were at hazardous peaks.

Clearly, governments should do everything possible to avoid such situations. Yet, progress and cooperation that were seen in the past years may be receding.

Last year, when the haze struck, the Indonesian government reacted by declaring a state of emergency in Riau and sent special troops to help suppress fires. Some suspects were arrested. After coming into office, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited Riau and has extended the country’s moratorium on the clearing of primary forests and peatland, which can be highly flammable when dried and degraded.

At the regional level, environment ministers earlier committed to sharing land-use concession maps among governments, and an Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Haze Monitoring System (AHMS) was endorsed by ASEAN leaders at their 23rd ASEAN Summit in October 2013.

The AHMS has yet to be operational, in part because Indonesia had said that it lacked an authoritative, consolidated and all-encompassing map for all its lands and concessions.

But assurances were given that this could be done after the completion of its One Map Initiative. The ASEAN environment ministers also agreed in April last year to share satellite and other information on hot spot areas.

In addition, a number of plantation and forestry companies — industries often implicated in the fires — made pledges to improve their record. Some also report their progress regularly to maintain accountability with their stakeholders.

While the haze was not immediately solved, these steps seemed to be going in the right direction. The moves align with our analyses and those of leading, non-governmental organisations in Indonesia, suggesting a more cooperative way of managing the issues among governments and with corporations.


Now, however, reports from Indonesia raise doubts on whether cooperation will continue to grow because of questions over the local authorities’ commitment to follow national plans.

Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, Dr Siti Nurbaya Bakar, said in an interview with Batam Pos newspaper early last month that the Jokowi administration has made funds available to construct canal blockers, which will prevent the draining of peatlands and make them less prone to fire, but this has not been done on site by local authorities. Unless local governments and companies work together on the ground, little real progress will be seen.

The minister’s comments also created confusion over Indonesia’s sincerity in sharing available information with other ASEAN governments, including Singapore. She was quoted as saying that Indonesian domestic laws, particularly the Act on Public Information Disclosure, prevents the sharing of relevant information, even with other governments.

This was reinforced by a statement from the ministry’s Director-General of Climate Change, Dr Nur Masripatin. Her comments, reported in The Straits Times on Aug 26, suggest that Indonesia also cannot extend information on hot spot locations, in case its ownership might be traced.

It is unclear why such comments were made. After all, considerable information about hot spots from satellites is already publicly available.

There is also added confusion over whether the ministry is right in saying Indonesian laws prohibit them from sharing information.

Some Indonesian law experts take the view that there is no regulation prohibiting the sharing of concession maps, and certainly not of hot spot locations. On the contrary, many believe such transparency will advance the quality of environmental and forestry management in Indonesia.

Another issue that requires clarification is whether companies can share the information and maps they have, if they wish to do so. Many member companies have submitted their concession maps to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit body that promotes sustainable practices in the industry.

Yet there have been reports that the Indonesian authorities have instructed companies and the RSPO not to publish the maps and to restrict the maps already in circulation.

It would seem preferable to let companies decide whether to volunteer this information. Some companies do so to assure their customers and stakeholders that they have taken precautionary and remedial measures to protect their concessions against fire.

This month, ASEAN environment ministers and officials will meet. This can be an occasion to clarify the accuracy of these media reports and statements, and to strengthen cooperation on this challenging issue.


Some have argued that issues of sovereignty underlie the confusion.

The Singapore Parliament last year passed a law to prosecute those who cause haze to affect Singapore. Even if the fires are on Indonesian soil, this is justified under international law so long as damage from the haze is suffered within Singapore and its airspace. What experts call the effects or impact doctrine has long been recognised as a basis for making laws.

The Act is a reflection of Singapore doing what it can to take responsibility over errant companies and individuals that cause harm. This can complement Indonesian laws that also prohibit fires on Indonesian soil.

These intentions bear clarification and reemphasis when the governments meet.

It can be tempting to hide behind nationalism, technicalities and corporate interests, but governments should remember and protect the ordinary citizens who suffer the ill effects of the haze.

Such citizens are not only those of Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia but first and foremost those of Indonesia who live in the most severely affected provinces.