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Cooperation, not confrontation, needed to tackle haze

The rebuttal by Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, that Singapore should focus on its own role with regard to the haze issue and not “concern itself” with what Indonesia has been doing, is out of sorts. Singapore has every right to ask about Indonesia’s progress in fighting the haze.

Cooperation, not confrontation, needed to tackle haze

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspecting the aftermath of a forest fire in south Kalimantan. Last year, when the haze was at its worst, the President went to the ground for a first-hand look at the forest fires. Photo: Reuters

The rebuttal by Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, that Singapore should focus on its own role with regard to the haze issue and not “concern itself” with what Indonesia has been doing, is out of sorts. Singapore has every right to ask about Indonesia’s progress in fighting the haze.

The Indonesian minister was referring to a keynote speech made by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources held on April 15 this year. When asked by news reporters a few days later about the comments made by Ms Siti Nurbaya, Mr Masagos stated that Singapore had been and is actively taking action against the errant companies responsible for forest fires last year.

But Ms Siti Nurbaya was not the first Indonesian official to criticise Singapore on the issue.

Early last year, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla chided Singapore (and Malaysia) for complaining about the haze. He said they should be grateful for the clean air that they enjoy for 11 months. At the APEC CEO Summit later in November, he also blamed the wind for spreading the haze to neighbouring countries, something which is beyond Indonesia’s control.

Mr Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, said it was “insulting” that Singapore offered only “one aircraft” to help fight the forest fires. In reality, Singapore offered a C-130 plane for cloud-seeding operations, a Chinook helicopter with a water bucket for aerial firefighting, and up to two C-130s to fly in the Singapore Civil Defence Force firefighting assistance team.

When Indonesia finally accepted Singapore’s offer, the Republic sent a Chinook helicopter with a 5,000-litre heli-bucket and 34 Singapore Armed Forces personnel to help fight the forest fires, together with a six-man Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Two C-130 aircraft were deployed to transport the personnel.

To his credit, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo set up a central haze taskforce to coordinate firefighting last year. This year, he also announced a moratorium on new palm oil concessions.

Last year, when the haze was at its worst, President Jokowi was on the ground to visit South Sumatra province for a first-hand look at the forest fires. He ordered the police to be “tough” on companies that did not comply with the law. Besides ordering peatland restoration by 2020, large canals with dams will also be built in fire-prone areas to ensure peatlands are not drained during the dry season.

President Jokowi promised results in three years. However, his ministers seem to prefer to use megaphone diplomacy instead of following his lead.

A TRANSBOUNDARY ISSUE

The haze is a multilateral and transboundary issue requiring regional cooperation from all parties. The progress of each country in implementing and enforcing measures must be kept open and transparent. The burning of forests and peatlands has threatened the commercial long-term viability of the sector. Multinational firms such as Unilever, Kellogg’s and Mars have recently cancelled contracts with a major palm oil conglomerate over its deforestation practices.

ASEAN has facilitated cooperation through the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to eradicate the haze. The Agreement also requires nations to cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent and monitor the haze. This includes the development of monitoring, assessment and early warning systems, the exchange of information and technology, and the provision of mutual assistance, among other requirements of the agreement.

All stakeholders (local communities, non-governmental organisations, farmers and private enterprises) must also be involved, where appropriate. Singapore has been acting within the boundaries of this 2002 agreement to urge cooperation to mitigate the forest fires.

Recent dry weather conditions around the region have given rise to the possibility of a repeat of the haze conditions last year. In early March, fires were reported in Riau, Sumatra, where a state of emergency was declared. Elsewhere, drought conditions have been reported: Thailand was enduring its worst drought in more than 20 years, and Johor and Pahang in Malaysia recently imposed water-rationing measures. Malaysia also had to close 250 schools in April because of above-37°C temperatures.

BILLIONS IN LOSSES

The haze may rear its ugly head again this year if preventive measures are not in place.

Mr Nazir Foehd, head of Indonesia’s newly formed Peatland Restoration Agency, has categorically stated that there is “zero chance” of a repeat of a haze episode of last year’s magnitude. Mr Nazir has stated that Indonesia was not at the “denial stage” any more, but at the stage of “correcting mistakes of the past”. But Mr Nazir faces daunting challenges, as he will be up against conglomerates and officials with vested interests in palm oil.

This year has been forecast to be one of the hottest globally and in South-east Asia. The World Bank estimated that Indonesia faced losses of around US$16 billion (S$22 billion) or 1.9 per cent of its gross domestic product last year because of the haze. The forests destroyed amounted to 2.6 million ha, 36.2 times the land area of Singapore. Incidentally, the haze cost Singapore S$700,000 in losses last year, with PSI readings of above 400 recorded.

Information from Indonesia on its plan of action and progress to prevent and mitigate the fires that cause the haze would be a step in the right direction. A defensive stance does not portend well for regional efforts to eradicate transboundary haze pollution. In this respect, being aware of what the other is doing is crucial.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lee Poh Onn is a researcher at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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