July 20 Haze: In a word, progress is 'incremental'

Singapore's Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan (L) and his Indonesian counterpart Balthasar Kambuaya attend the 15th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee

Kuala Lumpur - Asked about Asean's apparent inability to resolve the perennial issue of transboundary haze, the grouping's Secretary-General, Mr Le Luong Minh, told The Straits Times recently that the Asean process is "informal, consensus-driven, incremental".

"Incremental" is not a bad word to describe the progress at Wednesday's regional haze meeting in Kuala Lumpur, where the outcome seems as much about saving face as buying more time to fix a contentious issue.

Key decisions, such as whether to adopt a joint monitoring system that involves sharing digitised land-use maps and concession maps of fire-prone areas, have been pushed down the line for Asean leaders to decide at their Brunei summit in October.

It was not the breakthrough many had hoped for. But, hopefully, it is enough to keep prodding all the countries involved to see the need to move together to fix the root causes of the haze.

Chief among them is the practice of open burning to clear land in Sumatra, much of it on areas listed as belonging to companies but are not fully within their control.

Asean, after all, can only do what its member states give it the mandate to take on.

Noteworthy, however, is the apparent concession on sharing maps. Granted, there exist large discrepancies between concession maps provided by companies and those housed in official Indonesian government databases, a point groups like the World Resources Institute have noted.

And there is no guarantee that having the maps will result in precise identification of culprits.

Haze in Singapore & Malaysia
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, The Star, AFP, Reuters)

As law professor Alan Tan of the National University of Singapore noted, pulp and oil palm concessions and their operating boundaries are often ill-defined and overlap with other community uses, and there is a high level of tolerance for such fluidity.

"The maps are unlikely to be of much help if, on the ground, the boundaries are not respected and there is rampant encroachment. As we have seen, this is precisely what enables the big companies to shift the blame to small-time farmers," he said.

This year's efforts come as Indonesia is trying to integrate its maps onto a single database.

Also to its credit, the severity of this year's haze - and the reaction from neighbouring countries - seems to have sparked official commitment to do more.

The question is whether the efforts will continue over the coming months, or lurch from one severe bout of haze to another.

Jakarta's to-do list includes ratifying the 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a pact all the other nine members have since ratified.

Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya, who previously said preparations have begun for ratification,he said on Wednesday that he hoped Parliament would agree to it by early 2014.

The last time the pact was up for ratification in 2008, MPs rejected it for failing to address the problem of illegal logging.

This time round, some have expressed the view that the more pressure neighbouring countries put on Indonesia to ratify the treaty, the greater the resistance that is likely to come from Parliament.

It does not help that with an election year coming up, issues of sovereignty and access to national resources could easily be whipped up by some quarters.

Still, Mr Minh says countries have made a lot of progress if one looks back 16 years to the severe haze of 1997. But the region should not need to wait another 16 years to stop open burning.