The Indonesian Haze Conundrum



Haze pollution has become an inevitable environmen­tal hazard in Southeast Asia. For a start, exposure to it over a protracted period can bring over irritation to one’s eyes and throat if proper protection is not applied. Further complicati­ons may develop depending on the constituti­on of the afflicted. Haze may simply be defined as dry particles such as dust and smoke swirling and lingering in the air that negatively affect the atmospheri­c quality and the visibility of the sky, but it greatly disrupts the normal lives of people who take the full brunt of its continual occurrence.


When Indonesia first began to clear its innumerabl­e forests on a commercial scale to turn them into profitable palm-oil plantation­s, haze has recurred almost annually in Southeast Asia. This has been the case since the mid- eighties . The cheapest way to clear logged woodland is to apply the slash and burn method. thereby producing an acrid cloud of foul white smoke that is carried by the seasonal monsoon. This then smothers hundreds, or even thousands, of square kilometres, severely affecting not only Indonesia’s own territoria­l lands but also its close neighbours such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.


The intervenin­g decades have seen the passage of numerous national and internatio­nal regulation­s made in attempts to stop the fires, but all, it seems, to no avail. The mid weeks of June 2013 witnessed some of the worst haze situations ever, taking a severe toll not only on peoples’ lungs, throats and tempers, but also on diplomatic relations and Indonesia’s attempts to do damage control over its tarnished environmen­tal image. Worse still, despite the outcry, , it is difficult to see how matters are going to change for the better over the next few years.

The fires in the provinces of Riau, West Kalimantan, Jambi, Central Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia seriously affect the regional air quality. Most of these forest fires appear to be commercial­ly driven. In the recent massive forest fires in Sumatra, large-scale oil palm plantation companies were being investigat­ed for allowing the situation to get out of control. However, the lack of political resolve and the failure of the local authoritie­s to enforce the legislatio­n allow the culprits to escape unscathed time and again. Even recent efforts by the Indonesian authoritie­s to pin down corporate perpetrato­rs of the burning hotspots have failed to come up with any suspects and so no books can been thrown at anybody in particular in a court of law at all.

While the culprits remain elusive, land clearing for commercial farming and industrial purposes remains the prevalent practice. The “slash and burn technique” where forests are burnt on purpose to clear the land is considered as the most efficient and economical method. However, such practices often induce forest fires, especially during the dry season.

Peat fires have long been singled out by environmen­talists as the key contributo­r to the Indonesian haze conundrum. A non-renewable fossil fuel, peat is an accumulati­on of partially decayed vegetation particular­ly in wetlands. Such fires have also been spotlighte­d as the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. This means that greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires were larger than those from other energy sources in the country.

This most recent episode is not the first haze-related pollution which has reached an epidemic proportion. Back in 1997-8, Indonesia’s carbon emissions were high enough for it to be blackliste­d by environmen­talists as one of the largest global polluters. Indonesia was then compelled to pledge its commitment­s to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 41 percent by 2050. More than half of these reductions are targeted towards forestry and peat land sectors.

The 1997 haze pollution crisis began when forest fires broke out sporadical­ly in Kalimantan and Sumatra in July that year, worsened in September and October before subsiding in November. The severely afflicted countries included Thailand in the north and all the way to Australia in the south. The hotspots, burning at hazardous levels were reported to be about four million football pitches in magnitude and were visible even from space. Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, the then Malaysian Prime Minister, had to declare a State of Emergency when approximat­ely 10,000 people were reported to have sought treatment for haze-related ailments within a short span of six days. Malaysian and Singapore fire-fighters joined forces under a cross-border firefighti­ng mission called Operation Haze to finally reduce Indonesia’s forest fires to a sizzle. A wasteful and costly affair causing massive environmen­tal damage, with close to ten million hectares of forest engulfed by the raging fire, the lives of more than 40 thousand Indonesian people were irreversib­ly disrupted.

Despite facing immense internatio­nal and regional pressure, the Indonesian government continuall­y faces an uphill task trying to enforce legal restrictio­ns to curb land clearing through burning. It is a difficult task partly because of the diffused responsibi­lity across different levels of the government and the judiciary, as well as the challenges faced by government­al investigat­ors in assembling sufficient evidence against the accused.

In 2002, ASEAN establishe­d an environmen­tal agreement to reduce haze pollution in the region. The Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution

aims to prevent and monitor trans-boundary haze pollution as a result of land and/or forest fires, which should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and intensifie­d regional internatio­nal cooperatio­n. To date, all ASEAN countries except Indonesia have ratified the agreement.

Aside from strictly implementi­ng government laws and ratifying the ASEAN agreement, Indonesia could initiate peat land rehabilita­tion, which would automatica­lly prevent fires in these areas. They could also direct large-scale developmen­ts requiring land use to already deforested or degraded areas. Singapore and Malaysia could also help the Indonesian government to ensure that the plantation companies headquarte­red in their respective territorie­s employ contractor­s that observe the “zero burn” policy.

Members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) should also take a stronger position against further burning of peat land to emphasise their commitment to fulfil the zero net deforestat­ion by 2020. Banks and internatio­nal finance institutio­ns could also ensure that the companies they lend money to have a sustainabl­e environmen­tal framework as part of their operationa­l plan. Consumers should also demand that their palm oil and paper products not be grown in peat land areas.

What is needed is a Global effort. The rest of the world could also do more by supporting internatio­nal initiative­s such as the United Nations’ REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestat­ion and Forest Degradatio­n), which aims to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests. This then offers incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainabl­e developmen­t.

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Peat banks
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