Editorial: Haze accord must show results

The adoption of the joint haze monitoring system at ASEAN's Brunei summit last week marked an incremental but concrete step in the fight against the environmental scourge.

Unlike periods of denial and acrimony in which some Indonesians pointed the finger at other countries over responsibility or took refuge in sovereignty, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has displayed leadership in supporting the system.

It will be possible now to track down culprits behind the annual air pollution that vitiates both the natural and the political atmosphere among countries in South-east Asia. Polluters, who took cover in the vast terrain in which they operate, are likely to be deterred by the reach and precision of the monitoring system.

It employs high-resolution satellite images along with land use and concession maps to zoom in on those who burn land illegally.

However, while this is a necessary step, it is not a sufficient one. Ministries and agencies will need to be forthcoming and share data for the system to function effectively. The sharing of concession maps has been hobbled by Malaysian and Indonesian reservations over making them available publicly.

The compromise - the sharing of maps on a case-by-case basis among governments - reduces the efficacy of the process but would nonetheless act as a deterrent because errant companies would know that they are being watched and could be called into account.

But more than these issues, the best weapon against the haze is to work towards sustainable farming that will help remove the need for slash-and-burn techniques in the first place. The experience of such farming projects in Indonesia's Jambi province suggests that their ambit could be extended profitably to other provinces in Sumatra.

At the diplomatic level, the agreement reveals ASEAN's capacity to act on intra-mural problems, without which its stance on external issues would be weakened considerably.

Indeed, what have cast doubt on its credibility as a regional organisation are examples like the erstwhile lack of sustained progress on tackling the haze and the territorial dispute over land adjoining the Preah Vihear temple site that has led to conflict between Thailand and Cambodia.

Domestic credibility is essential if ASEAN is to project itself as a community. Unless people in ASEAN countries can see real-life problems being tackled and improving their lives, the notion of a regional community will seem distant and esoteric.

The five members of a sub-regional committee for the haze - Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand - must now ensure that the accord shows results.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.