June 5, 2023
PETALING JAYA – Experts are calling for practical and effective measures such as better water management and more transparency and disclosure in supply chains to be included in any new roadmap to tackle transboundary haze in Asean.
They also say that an anti-haze law, such as that legislated by Singapore which is aimed at punitive measures against those carrying out open burning, does not work.
The call by the experts comes just as Asean ministers are set to meet on transboundary haze from June 7 in Singapore.
Akademi Sains Malaysia vice-president Prof Datuk Dr A. Bakar Jaafar said water management was very important, especially for abandoned peat areas which are cut off from the normal water supply.
“We really need to rechannel excess water into the area so that it stays moist or wet,” he said in an interview.
Dry peatland is extremely flammable, with 90% of the fires that cause the haze affecting Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei stemming from dried-out peatland catching fire during land clearing, usually through slash and burn methods.
Prof A. Bakar said should peatland be converted into plantations, certain adaptation measures must be carried out.
“These include the peat soil compaction method which is being used by the Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute,” he said.
He explained that compaction allowed for a better capillary rise of water in peat soil, enabling it to stay tight and moist.
Slash materials from land clearing, said Prof A. Bakar, could also be converted into biofuels instead of being burned.
“We need to convert slash materials into biofuels. This will require heavy investment by both the public and private sectors, not just the governments.
“They (farmers and plantation owners) have to find means to dispose of the slash materials (when they clear land).
“If somebody were to buy these materials, there wouldn’t be any burning,” he said, adding that the minister should consider including these proposals in any roadmap.
The professor said despite Singapore introducing its Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014, there had not been a single prosecution by the Singaporean government.
“It doesn’t work,” he said, adding that the measures proposed by the academy were not only practical but effective as well, as demonstrated by a series of satellite images provided by the Sarawak Tropical Peat Institute.
Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad had earlier announced that he would be leading the Malaysian delegation to the Asean Environment Ministers’ Meeting, the 24th Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) meeting and the Technical Working Group meeting.
The Straits Times had reported Singapore’s Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment as saying that the meetings in June would take stock of the implementation of initiatives at mitigating transboundary haze in the region, including the development of the second road map on Asean Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control with Means of Implementation.
The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which has been in force since 2002, is often decried by critics as a “toothless” deal.
Kiu Jia Yaw, a sustainable development lawyer from Kiu & Co who is deputy co-chair of the Bar Council Environment and Climate Change Committee, said Singapore’s anti-haze legislation had shown “what will not work, legally as well as politically”.
To a question about whether the new roadmap should include punitive measures against those found burning on their land, he said: “That’s something politicians have been selling us for a long time.
“The only prosecutions and civil litigation on plantation fires and haze that have happened are within Indonesia.
“But even Indonesian judgements and fines remain unpaid by the defendants, largely thanks to their assets being overseas,” he said.
Instead, Kiu said that as Asean worked on strengthening its anti-haze framework, it should not just rely on criminal prosecutions (which are dependent on governments taking action) but take advantage of broader “tools” for accountability because there had been great progress in corporate sustainability obligations and environmental social governance (ESG) due diligence.
He said these tools included increasing regulatory powers to ask for disclosure from corporate actors involved in industrial agriculture such as details about their overseas subsidiaries or related entities, business practices, mechanisms to prevent fires, locations of plantations, land use changes and whether there were disputes with others claiming interest on the land.
“We need transparency in supply chains. Such information will be important for improving accountability.
“But we need a regional framework for that,” he said.
He said in the case of Singapore’s anti-haze law, there were political tensions when the republic enacted its domestic transboundary law unilaterally, purporting to have power over entities outside their jurisdiction.
“Indonesian authorities simply ignored them. So the proceedings had no impact.
“I think we can circumvent this obstacle by having every Asean member state make a reciprocating commitment to hold its own companies accountable within its own national jurisdiction. This will avoid offending the Asean way of non-interference. However, there should be a regional mechanism for sharing information,” he pointed out.
Kiu said such mechanisms for sharing information could be built on the present obligations to report on sustainability data to bourses and certification bodies like MSPO, RSPO and ISPO.
He added that this would be a way forward for Asean to uphold and protect all Asean citizens’ basic rights to a safe, healthy and clean environment, as recognised in the Asean Human Rights Declaration.