Worst haze ever shows urgent need for collective action

SINGAPORE - The haze in Southeast Asia has once again reared its ugly head, this time pushing Singapore's pollution levels to record highs and causing several parts of the Malaysian Peninsula to register unhealthy pollution readings.

Reports again point to land and palm oil plantation fires in Indonesia as the cause. This is a recurrent phenomenon and its return is greeted with a mix of anger and fatalism. Finger-pointing has ensued - at the various governments and palm oil plantations.

It is right to expect that regional governments should send the strongest political signal to address the situation. This is especially as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting will take place just next week.

However, mere finger-pointing can be counterproductive because, fundamentally, Indonesian cooperation is needed.

Indonesia has taken up a high profile in leading ASEAN and will try to avoid tainting its growing reputation. Indonesian authorities also need to act for the sake of their own citizens - the worst of the haze afflicts the peoples of Riau living nearest the fires.

The global implications of the fires and haze for climate change are another dimension. The haze represents a huge spike in greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia.

In ongoing United Nations climate negotiations, Indonesia stands to gain billions from schemes to reduce carbon emissions by avoiding deforestation and land degradation.

But, funding is contingent on proof that Indonesia can stand by pledges to conserve forests lands. The current fires vividly undercut such belief.

There are therefore domestic, regional and international reasons for Indonesia to effectively address the problem. Some elements in Indonesia will respond positively.

After all, in 2006, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged to reduce the number of fires and this had some effect.

That presidential pledge should be renewed. More, Indonesia should finally ratify the ASEAN Haze Agreement that was concluded more than a decade ago. Yet even if it does, doubts remain about how effective Jakarta promises will be in the now decentralized provinces.

This is especially as the Indonesian forestry and agricultural ministries seem to take quite a different attitude. When criticised, an Indonesian forestry official responded recently that Singaporean and Malaysian companies are to be implicated.

Yet this is a critical question to be answered.

If it is true that the Indonesian operations of Singaporean and Malaysian corporations are involved, nationality must not excuse inaction. The burgeoning plantation and forestry resources industries in Southeast Asia is linked by trade, consumption and finance, and governments need to cooperate to better regulate corporations across borders.

But without evidence, any ban would risk demonizing the entire palm oil industry.

This is counterproductive when some companies, in response to consumer demands, have pledged not to use fire.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet. The issue can however be better managed, as it has been in the recent past.

Witness the relative drop in haze and fire after 1997-1998 before again spiking in the last two years.

But, even management needs consistent attention and considerable resources. Cooperation is also complicated across borders and sectors - with governments, large corporations and local communities involved.

This was tested and showed signs of success when Singapore worked from 2007 with Indonesian provincial authorities on limited sites in Jambi.

A multi-level approach is needed. First, there needs to be a clear and consistent political signal from regional leaders and ministers.

We should expect that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting next week will address the issue, at least on the sidelines among the concerned countries. Indonesia should also ratify the ASEAN treaty.

Beyond this, there is harder work to reach the palm oil companies, as well as the supply chain and financial companies supporting the industry.

Governments need to adopt a carrot-and-stick approach toward companies operating on the ground. Even as errant companies are brought to account, firms that are implementing sustainable measures in their operations should be commended.

For this, the role of non-government organisations will be important. Some NGOs in Indonesia have been collating hard evidence of plantation owners conducting illegal burning activities, raising public awareness of these errant companies and assisting in the prosecution of some.

Others have been helping to set aside tracts of rainforests to protect them from loggers and burners alike.

Ultimately, to put all these together, what is required is a regional dialogue among different stakeholders - in the different agencies of government, diverse corporations, and in community and environmental groups.

Only then can common points be agreed and cooperative work begun, rather than continued blame-shifting. But this will require much more consistent attention, persistent work and resources than have been given to the issue to date.

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