Southeast Asia

ASEAN haze pact nothing but smoke
By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY - Burning Indonesian rain forests are again spreading a haze across Southeast Asia, but the countries downwind persist in hiding behind diplomatic smokescreens.

An unwillingness to confront the actions of a bad neighbor has left Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand with only a grab-bag of legal treaties to contain the region's biggest environmental threat. Most observers believe these will never be used because they require Indonesia's cooperation. And Jakarta has given few indications that it comprehends the seriousness of the situation.

Smoke from dry-season burnoffs first became a regional problem in 1991, and has since evolved into almost an annual ritual. Bad outbreaks have occurred five times, usually fanned by periods of abnormally low rainfall.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reported that the last big blaze, in 1997-98, destroyed about 10 million hectares of natural forest and exposed more than 20 million people to dangerous air and water pollutants. Underground peat bogs are believed to have released more toxic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than would be emitted during a whole year by all of the power stations and cars in Western Europe.

Economic losses, mostly from ruined rice harvests, disrupted transport and canceled tourism bookings, amounted to almost US$10 billion, though much of this could be attributed to the wider effects of the prevailing El Nino climatic phenomenon. El Nino has been back since March, bringing its usual cyclical binge of floods and droughts, and providing a convenient cover for the forest clearing by Indonesian rain-forest dwellers.

Jakarta believes the fires are a bigger problem this year because of the drier conditions. Indonesia is a frontline country for El Nino because of its proximity to the Southern Oscillation, an atmospheric episode that brings higher air pressure in a corridor ranging across northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Yet surveys by Singapore's National Environment Agency disprove the notion of a rampant El Nino. Sea surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific Ocean, a leading indicator of air-pressure patterns in Southeast Asia, are only slightly above normal for this time of year.

Drier conditions cannot alone account for the flareup: rather, the dispersed nature of the fires suggests that more Indonesians are taking advantage of the vacuum in domestic land-use policies.

More than 4,000 fire "hot spots" are currently burning on Kalimantan, Indonesia's portion of Borneo island, and 3,000 more in the provinces of Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu and South Sumatra. Two-thirds were caused by itinerant forest dwellers and the rest by plantation owners, according to the Indonesian authorities. The itinerants are ethnic minorities who are demonized as "illegal" occupiers of forest land.

There is an element of truth in this assertion, as most belong to tribes that in effect exist in a legal warp, unable to secure land-ownership documents while prime forest is bartered to outsiders for political favors. And almost certainly, many of the fires are being set with the deliberate intention of challenging the state policies. But while they are convenient targets, the itinerants are only following a path that was blazed by the government itself.

Fires have been used for centuries to clear forest undergrowth for farms, and were officially sanctioned after Jakarta began offering the first logging concessions in the mid-1970s. The impetus came from a 1967 edict that granted the state control over all timber resources. Much would subsequently be cleared under the Suharto government to resettle 300,000 families from congested Java to lowland Kalamantan.

Contradictions abound in the forestry policies. On the one side is a commitment to convert 400,000 hectares a year to agricultural and timber plantations for use in the resettlement program. On the other, there is a conservation strategy that - since 1994 - has prohibited the use of fires for clearing undergrowth and set aside 20 percent of all remaining forest as national park.

Even the timber policy encourages environmental abuse, as there is no provision for the use of rotation or selective logging techniques that might enable the rain forest to regenerate and become a sustainable resource.

Surveys by the World Bank show an alarming rate of depletion of Indonesia's forests, which will have dire implications for climatic conditions elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Since 1985 the total area of forest is believed to have been halved to 20 million hectares, or about 10 percent of the world's tropical rain forest. Conservatively, about 1.5 million hectares vanishes each year. Lowland forests in Sumatra are forecast by the World Bank to become extinct within three years, followed by Kalimantan by 2010-15.

To their credit, Indonesia's fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) have done their best to rattle Jakarta out of its policies slumber.

A 1997 study commissioned from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) identified a "lack of political will, inappropriate and poorly specified policies, weak legislation, ambiguous regulations [and] bureaucratic procedures, land-use conflicts and inadequate resources for enforcement". In the same year, ASEAN drew up a Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) to complement more generalized 1990 and 1995 accords on fires and regional smoke emissions.

Two months ago the grouping added an Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to advance the 1997 plan, which was supposed to realize most of its goals at the end of 2001. These were aimed at achieving a convergence of land-use activities through the customization of national codes of practice, by monitoring forest clearance and achieving a unified response to fires.

RHAP operates on the assumptions that national policies are responsible for the haze, that most is driven by profit considerations and that these two factors are exacerbated by climatic conditions. Indonesia was assigned the role of "lead country" for implementing these policies on the island of Sumatra, while Borneo - known as Kalamantan to Indonesians - is under the responsibility of Brunei.

But the flaw of the agreement, as so often with ASEAN accords, is that it requires the support of all members before direct action can be taken on a regional threat. This is to ensure that activities "avoid violating an individual member country's national sovereignty".

Specifically, firefighters or other personnel may only respond to a flareup in a second country if requested to do so by the government affected. Only this government can decide when help is needed. Responsibility for protecting resources remains at a national level, and there are no means of forcing compliance even when the problem becomes a regional one.

According to the RHAP, "policy objectives and measures relating to forest-fire management need to be clearly articulated and be in tune with the nation's environmental and socioeconomic policies".

"In short, public policy on fire should be a dynamic political manifestation of the people's concern for their environment, health and social welfare, and trust in the system of resource governance," the agreement adds hopefully.

The 2002 document adopts a stronger tone, requiring that signatories "take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent and monitor transboundary haze pollution ... to minimize its adverse effects". A country that is identified as the source of pollution must "respond promptly ... with a view to minimizing the consequences of the transboundary haze pollution".

It is now more than two weeks since Malaysia requested that Indonesia, under the auspices of this article, respond to the latest emissions scare. Smoking out a reply may take a good deal longer.

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Aug 29, 2002


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