Haze: Asean must work together
By Verdinand Robertua
08 September 2015

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - Indonesia is back in the international spotlight, becoming ever more infamous for burning its forests.

Thick haze is blanketing the cities of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Many flights have been delayed or cancelled and residents are wearing masks to avoid respiratory diseases. Schools are closed and business has been put on hold.
Indonesia is back in the international spotlight, becoming ever more infamous for burning its forests.

Annual forest fires contribute 60 per cent of Indonesia’s total greenhouse gas emissions, making the country the third-largest emitter after China and the US.

Transboundary haze resulting from the forest fires has angered Indonesia’s neighbors. Asean launched in 2002 the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AAHTP), but Indonesia did not ratify it until Sept 16, 2014.

The agreement is designed for technical and operational cooperation on transboundary pollution. Its goal is to prevent and monitor transboundary haze pollution as a result of land and/or forest fires that should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and intensified regional and international cooperation.

For Asean, the agreement is a breakthrough and an extraordinary innovation. The Kyoto Protocol also deals with forest fires, but it is non-binding.

However, with Indonesian forests smoldering once more, has the AAHTP already failed?

Studies have blamed member states for mismanaged environments.  According to Lidia Fera Kogoya, a student studying the impact of the agreement on forest fires, the AAHTP is a failure because individual Asean governments are not serious about implementing the treaty. One important follow-up should be an Asean haze centre to coordinate haze policies.

Meanwhile, University of Sydney researcher Syarif, who has studied regional arrangements on transboundary pollution, argues that the lack of willingness of member states’ leaders to “sacrifice” some of their national sovereignty for the sake of the community is one important factor in the failure of regional haze management. Syarif notes that progressive measures taken by the EU on acid rain mitigation were partly due to the adoption of legal instruments such as official directives on air quality standards, something absent from Asean.

Yet governments alone are not to blame. We have to question slash-and-burn methods used by transnational companies and local land owners. Under this practice, farmers cut down some vegetation on a patch of land before setting fire to the remainder.

According to satellite images, 70 per cent of hot spots are on local plantations. The Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP) at the National University of Singapore shows that hot spots are found mostly in palm oil plantations. Slash-and-burn is the cheapest and quickest method for clearing land and is used by 200 to 500 million people worldwide. In 2004 it was estimated that in Brazil alone, 500,000 small-scale farmers each cleared an average of one hectare of forest per year.

The slash-and-burn method is banned in Indonesia. Indonesian police can prosecute suspected firestarters under a number of laws, including the 1999 law on forest management, the 2005 law on plantations and the 2009 law on environmental management. Companies found guilty of burning land for plantations can face substantial fines, while their executives can face up to 15 years in prison.

In 2014, the South Sumatra Police arrested two employees of state-run plantations for burning part of a sugar plantation.

If slash-and-burn is illegal, why isn’t it being stopped? Many businesspeople and land owners continue to profit as much as they can regardless of the environmental impact.

Some companies with links to the government are believed to have bribed officials, enabling support of their continued illegal practices.

Underpaid government officials, combined with the prevalence of disreputable businesspeople and politicians, mean logging bans go unenforced, trafficking in endangered species is overlooked, environmental regulations are ignored, parks become timber farms and fines and prison sentences never come to pass.

The solutions are obvious. Indonesian farmers and transnational companies have to comply with regulations and apply zero-burning techniques. Indonesian police must seriously enforce the law. Asean must empower states to prevent and mitigate the impact of fires. Large palm oil-consuming companies like Unilever should apply strict standards for the suppliers of their raw materials.

In his book Endangered Planet, Richard Falk argues environmental mismanagement is an “inevitable result of a defective set of political institutions”.

In the case of forest fires, what inhibits a common regional plan for action to overcome the fires is not the system of states, but human disagreement and conflict in the ecological realm itself.

The weakness of the AAHTP therefore also includes the role transnational companies and local land owners play in the slash-and-burn methods that constitute the major factor in forest and land fires.

(The writer is a lecturer in international relations at the Christian University of Indonesia (UKI) and a researcher at Marthinus Academy.)

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