South East Asia: ASEANhaze pact nothing but smoke (
29 August 2002
SYDNEY – BurningIndonesian rain forests are again spreading a haze across Southeast Asia, butthe countries downwind persist in hiding behind diplomatic smokescreens.
An unwillingness toconfront the actions of a bad neighbour has left Malaysia, Singapore, thePhilippines and Thailand with only a grab-bag of legal treaties to contain theregion’s biggest environmental threat. Most observers believe these will neverbe used because they require Indonesia’s cooperation. And Jakarta has given fewindications that it comprehends the seriousness of the situation.
Smoke from dry-seasonburnoffs first became a regional problem in 1991, and has since evolved intoalmost an annual ritual. Bad outbreaks have occurred five times, usually fannedby periods of abnormally low rainfall.
The United NationsEnvironment Program (UNEP) reported that the last big blaze, in 1997-98,destroyed about 10 million hectares of natural forest and exposed more than 20million people to dangerous air and water pollutants. Underground peat bogs arebelieved to have released more toxic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere thanwould be emitted during a whole year by all of the power stations and cars inWestern Europe.
Economic losses, mostlyfrom ruined rice harvests, disrupted transport and cancelled tourism bookings,amounted to almost US$10 billion, though much of this could be attributed to thewider effects of the prevailing El Niño climatic phenomenon. El Niño has beenback since March, bringing its usual cyclical binge of floods and droughts, andproviding a convenient cover for the forest clearing by Indonesian rain-forestdwellers.
Jakarta believes the firesare a bigger problem this year because of the drier conditions. Indonesia is afrontline country for El Niño because of its proximity to the SouthernOscillation, an atmospheric episode that brings higher air pressure in acorridor ranging across northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Yet surveys bySingapore’s National Environment Agency disprove the notion of a rampant El Niño.Sea surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific Ocean, a leadingindicator of air-pressure patterns in Southeast Asia, are only slightly abovenormal for this time of year.
Drier conditions cannotalone account for the flareup: rather, the dispersed nature of the firessuggests that more Indonesians are taking advantage of the vacuum in domesticland-use policies.
More than 4,000 fire”hot spots” are currently burning on Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portionof Borneo island, and 3,000 more in the provinces of Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu andSouth Sumatra. Two-thirds were caused by itinerant forest dwellers and the restby plantation owners, according to the Indonesian authorities. The itinerantsare ethnic minorities who are demonized as “illegal” occupiers offorest land.
There is an element oftruth in this assertion, as most belong to tribes that in effect exist in alegal warp, unable to secure land-ownership documents while prime forest isbartered to outsiders for political favours. And almost certainly, many of thefires are being set with the deliberate intention of challenging the statepolicies. But while they are convenient targets, the itinerants are onlyfollowing a path that was blazed by the government itself.
Fires have been used forcenturies to clear forest undergrowth for farms, and were officially sanctionedafter Jakarta began offering the first logging concessions in the mid-1970s. Theimpetus came from a 1967 edict that granted the state control over all timberresources. Much would subsequently be cleared under the Soeharto government toresettle 300,000 families from congested Java to lowland Kalamantan.
Contradictions abound inthe forestry policies. On the one side is a commitment to convert 400,000hectares a year to agricultural and timber plantations for use in theresettlement program. On the other, there is a conservation strategy that -since 1994 – has prohibited the use of fires for clearing undergrowth and setaside 20 percent of all remaining forest as national park.
Even the timber policyencourages environmental abuse, as there is no provision for the use of rotationor selective logging techniques that might enable the rain forest to regenerateand become a sustainable resource.
Surveys by the World Bankshow an alarming rate of depletion of Indonesia’s forests, which will have direimplications for climatic conditions elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Since 1985 thetotal area of forest is believed to have been halved to 20 million hectares, orabout 10 percent of the world’s tropical rain forest. Conservatively, about 1.5million hectares vanishes each year. Lowland forests in Sumatra are forecast bythe World Bank to become extinct within three years, followed by Kalimantan by2010-15.
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. A1997 study commissioned from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) identified a”lack of political will, inappropriate and poorly specified policies, weaklegislation, ambiguous regulations [and] bureaucratic procedures, land-useconflicts and inadequate resources for enforcement”. In the same year,ASEAN drew up a Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) to complement more generalized1990 and 1995 accords on fires and regional smoke emissions.
Two months ago thegrouping added an Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to advance the 1997plan, which was supposed to realize most of its goals at the end of 2001. Thesewere aimed at achieving a convergence of land-use activities through thecustomization of national codes of practice, by monitoring forest clearance andachieving a unified response to fires.
RHAP operates on theassumptions that national policies are responsible for the haze, that most isdriven by profit considerations and that these two factors are exacerbated byclimatic conditions. Indonesia was assigned the role of “lead country”for implementing these policies on the island of Sumatra, while Borneo – knownas Kalamantan to Indonesians – is under the responsibility of Brunei.
But the flaw of theagreement, as so often with ASEAN accords, is that it requires the support ofall members before direct action can be taken on a regional threat. This is toensure that activities “avoid violating an individual member country’snational sovereignty”.
Specifically, firefightersor other personnel may only respond to a flareup in a second country ifrequested to do so by the government affected. Only this government can decidewhen help is needed. Responsibility for protecting resources remains at anational level, and there are no means of forcing compliance even when theproblem becomes a regional one.
According to the RHAP,”policy objectives and measures relating to forest-fire management need tobe clearly articulated and be in tune with the nation’s environmental andsocio-economic policies”.
“In short, publicpolicy on fire should be a dynamic political manifestation of the people’sconcern for their environment, health and social welfare, and trust in thesystem of resource governance,” the agreement adds hopefully.
The 2002 document adopts astronger tone, requiring that signatories “take precautionary measures toanticipate, prevent and monitor transboundary haze pollution … to minimize itsadverse effects”. A country that is identified as the source of pollutionmust “respond promptly … with a view to minimizing the consequences ofthe transboundary haze pollution”.
It is now more than twoweeks since Malaysia requested that Indonesia, under the auspices of thisarticle, respond to the latest emissions scare. Smoking out a reply may take agood deal longer.