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Haze meeting: Govts agree to share concession maps

KUALA LUMPUR — Despite Indonesia committing to ratify the regional pact on transboundary haze pollution by early next year, at the latest, and agreeing to share digitised concession maps with other governments, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan left yesterday’s regional meeting on the haze problem “disappointed (but) not surprised”, in his own words.

KUALA LUMPUR — Despite Indonesia committing to ratify the regional pact on transboundary haze pollution by early next year, at the latest, and agreeing to share digitised concession maps with other governments, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan left yesterday’s regional meeting on the haze problem “disappointed (but) not surprised”, in his own words.

The 15th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze was held in Kuala Lumpur. Last week, Dr Balakrishnan spelt out in Parliament four outcomes that Singapore was seeking at the meeting.

He told the Singapore media after the meeting yesterday that he had to push hard — to the extent of persuading other leaders during a tea break — to get the countries to agree to share the concession maps at government-to-government level, subject to the approval of ASEAN leaders at a summit in October.

This was a compromise from what the Republic had wanted, which was for the detailed maps to be made available to the public.

Only two of the four outcomes that Singapore had sought were fully met after the four-hour meeting: Getting the participating countries — Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand — to involve high-level officials from all relevant ministries and agencies from each country in the MSC process, and getting a commitment from Indonesia to ratify the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement “expeditiously”.

Singapore was unable to get an agreement from Indonesia to renew their collaboration to reduce forest fires at Jambi and other provinces if possible, with Indonesia issuing a noncommittal response to offers of bilateral collaborations from Malaysia and Singapore.

While it welcomed the offers, Indonesia is “currently identifying the areas of cooperation which will maximise and bring mutual benefits for all parties concerned”, a press released issued after the meeting said.

Singapore had also hoped to get the participating countries to submit their concession maps and agree a date for the public launch of the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) platform to enable identification errant companies engaging in slash-and-burn practices.

The computerised HMS platform — which Singapore developed in the past year — uses hot spot data, high-resolution satellite pictures and concession maps to help hold companies accountable for fires in their areas. It was unveiled and demonstrated during closed door briefings that were held since Monday but some governments — understood to be Malaysia and Indonesia — expressed reservations about its use, citing a variety of legal impediments, said Dr Balakrishnan. “A year ago, Singapore had been tasked to develop the HMS… We developed the system and demonstrated it to them… then they came up with this reservation about making concession data public,” he said.

A tea break that made the difference

In the end, he brokered a compromise during a 20-minute tea break. “I told them I cannot go back empty handed,” Dr Balakrishnan said.

He added: “My main focus was to make sure that they do share that data, so when they raised the objection that their laws do not allow the public access to their data, the fallback position was … share it at a government level … so that there would still be a joint monitoring system.”

On whether he was satisfied with the outcomes, Dr Balakrishan — who was accompanied at the meeting by Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu — said: “We didn’t get everything that we wanted but nonetheless, I think there is some progress.” Still, the progress was “slow”, he said.

On the use of the HMS platform, he said that the Singapore Government is working with non-governmental organisations informally. “There are some things that we can share, the high-res photos that we’ve purchased ... we can make available ... I would say that as far as the public is concerned, they will still get data,” he said.

At a joint press conference earlier, Malaysia’s Environment Minister G Palanivel explained that both Malaysia and Indonesia were “very strict” on the use of concession maps. “At the same time, we are ready to provide (maps) of all the fire-prone areas … Indonesia says that it has to be government-to-government, so we agreed to that,” he said.

On the sidelines of the meeting, Mr Faizal Parish, a Senior Technical Advisor of ASEAN’s peatland forests project, told reporters that because of Indonesia’s complex system of land allocation, concession maps used for identifying hotspots may not match with the actual land allocation. Said Mr Parish: “There is maybe some valid concern from the Indonesian government that if they make (available to the public) the wrong map … then legal action could be taken against the government by the companies concerned, (for) bringing their names into disrepute by making effectively false claims.”

However, Indonesia’s Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya rejected Mr Parish’s suggestion that his government was worried of potential lawsuits. He said that his country’s “regulations regarding transparency and publicly available information bar us from releasing” the concession maps. Adding that Indonesia will only provide the maps on a “case-by-case basis”, Professor Kambuaya said: “Companies will feel compromised in terms of their competitiveness by releasing this data.”

Last Friday, an spokesman for Indonesia’s national police said PT Adei Plantations, a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd — Malaysia’s third-largest palm oil planter — would be charged for illegal fires. The company has denied the accusations.

Prof Kambuaya declined to reveal if any of the eight errant companies being investigated were linked to Singapore or Malaysia. He said that the outcome of the probe will be announced “as soon as possible”.

He added that Indonesia hopes to ratify the Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement “by the end of the year or early next year”. Indonesia remains the only ASEAN country that has not ratified the agreement which was inked in 2002.

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