A stifling haze continues to hover over Singapore and Malaysia, and
frustrations are mounting by those affected by it across the region. What is
being done to resolve the problem once and for all? Find out with me, Yvonne
Gomez. Welcome to Connections on Radio Singapore International.
For many years, subsistence farmers in Indonesia thought nothing of their
slash-and-burn method of clearing the land for farming.
The idea behind this is based on a shifting cultivation system, where land that
is not irrigated is prepared by burning off what used to grow there. The land is
then planted with a selection of fast-growing food crops.
But this farming practice has now been given a bad name, due to the forest fires
in Indonesia that inevitably send a choking haze across the region at a certain
time of the year, pushing air quality up to unhealthy levels.
Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Associate
Professor Simon Tay told me that the haze has been around since the turn of the
century but the scale of the burning was much smaller in the past.
But with plantation owners now indulging in this method of clearing land because
it’s cheaper, the number of forest fires have increased, as well as the
intensity of the haze.
ST: This is a historical problem but man-made industries and companies have been
making this problem grow and grow. So in 1991 and 1994, and then the worst
episode was in 1997/1998, where the estimated cost was over US$9 billion in
economic damage to the region. In 2006 now, we’re seeing one of the worst
recurrences since 1997.
What, in your opinion, have been the key issues in the recurring regional haze
ST: Well, one is the clearance of land and the use of fire. Fire has its
traditional use but the scale of occurrence has been growing. Second is the
inability of the Indonesian government to rein in this problem, and it’s of
course, exacerbated by dry climatic conditions. So there is a bit of a natural
element in there, but I think we are really looking at a man-made problem,
caused in the name of profit to clear the land more cheaply and more quickly,
for profitable use, and then of course, the lack of ability and will of the
Indonesian government to act.
Jakarta-based political analyst, Dr Irman Lanti outlines Indonesia’s
responsibilities in tackling the haze problem.
IL: I think there are a few more things that the government can do, I mean, for
instance, the efforts to douse the fires that have been offered by some
countries, Indonesia has been reluctant to take on. These are the things that
Indonesia can do to ask for help from the neighbours who are affected by the
haze. I think this is a typical Indonesian government problem that it’s too
proud to ask for help. But as a matter of fact it doesn’t have the capacity to
solve the problem by itself.
To address the problem of the haze ASEAN ministers drew up a Transboundary Haze
Prevention treaty in 2002, which all members have signed and ratified except for
Indonesia. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has recently agreed to sign it,
but fell short of saying exactly when.
Why has Jakarta been so unwilling to ratify the treaty until now? Dr Lanti gives
IL: I think the sense is that they want to move carefully to ratify this treaty
because they’re not even sure what consequences there will be for Jakarta if
they do not keep their end of the bargain. I think to some extent the
parliamentarians and the people in the foreign affairs ministry were very
careful. They don’t want to be accused of not following the end of their
responsibilities in the agreement because they know that they can’t; they don’t
have the capacity to follow the dictates of the agreement. But what we’re trying
to do now in Indonesia is to show them that the framework is not to blame
Indonesia every time something happens. But it’s basically to show that the
countries in the region are willing to help Indonesia in cases when Indonesia
can’t solve its own problems. But all this comes back to the question of
sovereignty and national pride that is quite rife in this country nowadays.
To find out Malaysia’s concerns about the haze problem, I spoke to Mr Gurmit
Singh, who is Executive Director of Centre for Environment, Technology and
GS: Overall, of course the general public is very concerned and tends to point
the finger at Indonesia. But I think the people are wondering why it’s become so
bad and why it’s recurring every year. In the past, of course the cause was also
Malaysia but this time, we don’t seem to have so many Malaysian forest fires, so
there’s a tendency to point the finger at Indonesia and say they are creating
this problem for us.
How has Malaysia offered to help Indonesia tackle the haze problem?
GS: So far, there has been no real offer, but in the past, I think we had a bit
of a bad experience when we sent fire-fighters to Indonesia to help them but
they were not really very welcome. So in that sense, I think Malaysia has been
holding back to see how far Indonesia in willing to accept Malaysia’s help. I
think Malaysia did give them some advice on how to do zero-burning on
plantations but I don’t think that has been well-implemented.
How far though, do you think Indonesia’s attitude towards the haze problem has
been different this time around?
GS: It’s very difficult to quantify but the impression I get is that part of the
problem is that they’re a little bit more democratic this time, so
decision-making is a little bit more difficult and things are not moving as fast
as some of them would like. Some of us were joking that maybe its because the
haze is not reaching Jakarta so the policy-makers themselves don’t seem to be
that affected, although the poor in Sarawak and Indonesia are suffering more
than the rest of us here.
How far do you think that’s a reason though, that because Jakarta is not feeling
the effects of the haze and that’s why there’s been a lack of political will or
an unwillingness to tackle this problem with more force?
GS: I think it’s a reality because very often, policy-makers, unless they
themselves are directly affected, don’t tend to move that fast.
Indonesian authorities have accused some Malaysian plantation owners of setting
these fires. How far can Malaysia crack down on these companies that might be
contributing to the haze problem?
GS: I think the Malaysian minister of plantations has given the assurance that
if these people can be identified, they should be prosecuted in Indonesian
courts, and if they can find proof and catch them in Malaysia, they are willing
to take action.
Whatever happens, if Indonesa ratifies or not, the haze treaty is said to lack
enforcement mechanisms. So how do you actually expect it to actually resolve the
issue, even within the new framework?
GS: This is what I pointed out when I was in Kuala Lumpur when it was adopted. I
said it’s going to be another piece of paper because there are no teeth to it.
Unless they can put some teeth to it…but the problem is that in most
international agreements, most governments are not willing to put teeth because
none of them want be subject to penalty clauses and all that, whether its
climate change or whatever, because if you look at the climate change
convention, there’s also the same problem.
Within the new framework, how can Malaysia and Singapore, in particular,
contribute to fighting the haze problem?
GS: I think they basically have to win the confidence of the Indonesian
government that they are willing to do their part, provided Indonesia is also
willing to move along, so that it’s a joint cooperative thing and not something
that’s forced down the throats of the Indonesians, because as you know, the
Indonesians are proud people and they don’t like to be told what to do.`
For various political reasons, there are naturally some unspoken issues within
the haze problem.
Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of
International Affairs explains what these are.
ST: One of the issues facing us when we look at the problem in Indonesia is how
much anyone can really help Indonesia deal with the problem, especially when the
regional group Asean, has a norm of non-intervention. Now, we cannot imagine a
perfect solution when all of us can intervene in Indonesia and compel them. This
is simply not how states treat each other, in Asia or elsewhere. What we need to
see is Asean putting more pressure and emphasis on cooperation, and we need
Indonesians, that it’s really for them. It may not be affecting the people in
Jakarta, but the other Indonesians living near the fires, in Jambi, Pekanbaru,
and those very near the epicenter of these fires. What we need to see is Asean
changing the way it’s been working.
Getting down to brass tacks…according to reports, the problem has always been
one of enforcement. Do you expect this to change, and if it doesn’t, what
immediate impact do you expect from Indonesia’s ratification of the ASEAN Haze
ST: Well, I think the Asean haze treaty is a very necessary step. The treaty
itself lacks enforcement mechanisms. So we can’t say that if Indonesia fails
after this that it’ll have to pay money. There’s no forfeit. But what the treaty
does, and this is understood by Indonesia, is that it’s a legally-binding
obligation and this will help Indonesians themselves. There are NGOs and people
in Indonesia who want to put this problem right. These people will have a
stronger standing in their own country, to call for action. And of course people
outside, in Malaysia and Singapore, will be able to say this is a binding
obligation, so follow up. It’s like a promise that’s been clearly made and so
what are you going to do now internally, to give life to your promise.
What are some practical issues arising from Indonesia’s imminent ratification of
ST: The haze agreement creates the Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary
Haze Pollution, and the Centre, as its name implies, will coordinate the
different responses among the member states of Asean. But it shall work on the
basis that the national authority of Indonesia will act first to put out the
fires. It’s only when the national authority declares an emergency situation
that it can then make a request for the Asean Centre to provide assistance. So
in a sense, this leaves the sovereignty of Indonesia intact. Indonesia should
make the first response and it’ll be up to Indonesia to declare an emergency.
But of course, on the other hand, the existence of the centre is a platform for
other states to say, look Indonesia, you have a problem and it’s spiraling out
of control and you should invoke the help of the Centre and you should invoke an
And how is the situation different from right now, pre-ratification?
ST: Well, pre-ratification, you really have to go to the Ministers, and it might
not just be the environment ministers, who might have to turn to the president
or the minister for agriculture and forestry etc. So it’s a much more
complicated situation and there’s much more politics. This is supposed to be
specialized. Each country is supposed to set up a national Centre, and each
national Centre is then coordinated through the Asean Centre.
As with all international agreements, I believe Indonesia, or any other ASEAN
nation, can pull out of the treaty at any time. Do you anticipate this
happening, if the obligations under the treaty become too much for Indonesia to
ST: I think this is where I mean about the need for a balance in the treaty. The
treaty, if it’s a straitjacket, if it’s seen as a way to punish Indonesia…I
mean, if I was Indonesia, I would never sign it, and if I ever sign it, I would
break it or get out of it somehow. So we really have got to see the treaty comes
together with what we call compliance. Getting Indonesia to comply with the
obligations, and not enforcement or forcing Indonesia to do something against
its own interests. There are a couple of ways to do this and one of the ways is
the pooling of money. The treaty creates the multilateral fund, to which
countries like Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia contribute, with Indonesia,
funding a solution. But of course, to do that, they have to be convinced that
Indonesia wants to solve it and that this money will not be frittered away or
disappear into someone’s back pocket. So the treaty has to be done right in
order for it not to be seen as a weapon of compulsion, rather as a form of
assistance towards a common goal – the eradication of fires. The second part is
that in ratifying, I hope it’s not just because the President has said ‘let’s
ratify this’ and that it echoes through the country. It should be seen as
parliament not bowing to foreign pressure, but as recognizing that Indonesians
living close to the fires are at risk, at the worst risk and really, Indonesia’s
economy is hurt the most, and Indonesia’s credibility with foreign investors and
people expecting the government to do something – that’s at risk. So I think
that if we look at it that way, we should see that Indonesia can enter the
treaty, can benefit from the treaty and therefore, will not pull out of the
Indonesia’s decision to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze
Pollution is certainly a step in the right direction.
But until it actually does so, it is likely that its neighbours in the region
will continue to pressure Indonesia to take concrete steps to resolve the haze