|ASEAN haze pact nothing but
By Alan Boyd
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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".
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
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
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
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