Legal obstacle to sharing of maps to fight haze

KUALA LUMPUR - As Asean environment ministers gathered here on Wednesday to hammer out a solution to the annual haze, a stumbling block has emerged after preparatory meetings that began on Monday.

Indonesian and Malaysian government officials have told their counterparts that the sharing of maps key to pinpointing those who burn land illegally may not be allowed under their laws, The Straits Times understands.

These land concession maps, if accurate and official, specify exactly who owns the rights to carry out logging or plantation activity on a particular tract of land.

When used with satellite images of hot spots, they can provide evidence for enforcement action.

This has been one of the solutions proposed to tackle the haze - which may return to Singapore in the next fortnight - ahead of today's 15th Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution. The participating countries are Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore.

Singapore's delegation is led by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. A joint statement is expected after today's meeting.

But some officials involved in two days of closed-door technical meetings ahead of the ministerial gathering were not optimistic of a favourable outcome.

A source said one Indonesian official even read out the clause of one of his country's laws to bolster his case that releasing land concession maps was not possible.

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

Malaysian officials, without citing specific laws, said they too had concerns that sharing their maps may breach confidentiality rules.

Officials said a compromise solution may be possible: that governments share the maps with one another on the condition that they would not be made public.

If Indonesia and Malaysia find even this unacceptable, sources said, then each country would have to pursue errant companies within their own borders, based on hot spots data.

This would be a setback for Singapore, which is already exploring extra-territorial laws to take errant companies to task.

Said one official: "We take the objections from Indonesia and Malaysia at face value. The ministers will now have to decide."

The meeting had originally been scheduled for next month, but was brought forward at the suggestion of Malaysia after air quality in several countries soared to record hazardous levels last month due to plantation fires in Sumatra.

Apart from the sharing of maps, Singapore is seeking several outcomes at the meeting.

These are:

- getting Indonesia to renew environmental collaboration in Jambi, and possibly other provinces, to promote sustainable farming and haze prediction,

- getting Indonesia to commit to ratifying the Asean Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement expeditiously (it is the only Asean country yet to do so), and

- getting high-level officials from all relevant ministries involved in the MSC process.

Meanwhile, Singapore's Meteorological Service said it did not rule out slight haze on a few days in the next two weeks.

Fires may still occur in the region due to dry weather, and smoke from the fires may be carried to Singapore by wind.

Additional reporting by Feng Zengkun in Singapore

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