July 6 Getting together against the haze


SINGAPORE - Since the first step to solving a problem requires recognising it as a problem, it is heartening that the Asean Ministerial Meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan has treated the haze as an important regional issue. Senior Asean officials have been directed to consolidate current initiatives and recommend steps to prevent a recurrence of the haze.

This might seem a small step but its significance is underlined by the lack, at the Brunei meeting, of the acrimony that recently marked some Indonesian reactions to criticism from neighbours affected by the haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia.

The informal meeting that Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam initiated with his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts before the Asean parley bore fruit as the association acted on an issue which, if left hanging in diplomatic limbo, would have affected its credibility.

What also helped was President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's principled, statesmanlike and courageous response in apologising for the problem. He set the tone for mature discussions uncomplicated by misguided notions of national pride.

The effects of his intervention were felt at the Asean meeting, whose joint communique said that a progress report on anti-haze efforts would be presented to top leaders at the next Asean summit in October. This provides a time frame by which to judge the efficacy of the latest efforts.

With the number of hot spots in Indonesia down substantially, thanks to its haze-fighting efforts, the prognosis appears to be good.

However, it is early days yet in the haze season, and more needs to be done. Since the haze is a regional problem, its solution has to be regional as well. Indonesians should not consider as an intrusion into their sovereignty well-meaning efforts by their neighbours to help them tackle the problem.

An Asean quick-response team to forest fires in the future would co-opt the technological and manpower resources of Indonesia's neighbours. Then, there is a need to revitalise the Jambi collaboration project between Indonesia and Singapore.

It seeks to encourage farmers there to turn to fisheries so that they would be under less economic pressure to resort to burning to clear land for cultivation. Hopes for an aquaculture project were undermined by a lack of infrastructural support for the export of the produce.

It is these kinds of practical, pre-emptive steps that reduce the need for expensive action once the fires have broken out. At the diplomatic level, Indonesia's ratification of the 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution would add credence to the association's efforts to fight a common menace.

They gained traction in Brunei and must be kept up.

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