The haze has been a recurring number to member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since 1991 _ fortunately not on an annual basis. There were hazes in 1994 and 1997. The 1994 event led environment ministers to agree to work towards an Asean Cooperation Plan on Trans-boundary Pollution. The haze in 1997 was most memorable because it coincided with the financial crisis that gave Asean more impulse than before to act collectively.
The first outcome was a regional haze action plan which focused on improving management policies and enforcement, operational monitoring mechanisms and capability to fight forest fires. The plan called on the member states to develop national blueprints that would contain policies, strategies, guidelines and operating procedures. It also called on individual nations to develop markets for the economic recovery and utilisation of biomass, and appropriate methods for the disposal of agricultural waste. A ”haze technical task force” was to meet monthly to review progress in the implementation of the regional plan. The stated ideas and intentions seemed wonderful.
Around the same time, the Asean states started work on a haze agreement which was eventually signed in Kuala Lumpur in June 2002 and came into force in November 2003. The agreement provides for a wide range of expected provisions, on monitoring, assessment and prevention, technical cooperation and scientific research. It also envisages mechanisms for necessary procedures like coordination, communication, and simplified customs and immigration procedures for disaster relief.
”The Haze Agreement reaffirms Asean’s commitment to take specific actions to prevent and monitor land and forest fires and the resulting haze on a sustained basis. It also serves to intensify the current regional and sub-regional arrangements through provisions on technical cooperation and procedures for joint emergency response,” says a statement on Haze Action Online, a product put out by the Asean secretariat.
But as all followers of Asean know, the agreements it creates are not binding. Hence their effectiveness depends on the will to cooperate of the parties to them.
In the past few days, Indonesia has been seen to be lacking in this, polluting the air in Malaysia badly and immediately, and most recently creating toxic fumes in southern Thailand, as far up as the resort island of Phuket.
Published reports from Indonesia suggesting that Malaysian companies were responsible for many of the fires have sparked concern because they put undue strains on relations between immediate neighbours. One report said eight out of the 10 companies said to have set the fire in order to clear land were Malaysian.
But it was comforting to learn that Malaysia would not protest if Indonesia prosecutes the Malaysian companies that are found to have set the forest fires. No less than the Malaysian foreign minister seems to have given that assurance.
If there is a silver lining in the forest fires, it is in the timing. Senior environmental officials agreed at a meeting that ended in Malaysia on Wednesday to set up a panel to put into practice the terms of the haze agreement. In the lead-up to the Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur in December, officials should be instructed to come up with new ways of dealing with what is hazardous to public health and safety.
Repeat hazes in the region have shown that investors are not deterred by rules, threat of legal action or actual legal action. In addition, these are all measures at the end of the line that need to be complemented by many more preventives.
The facts of Asean life and beliefs suggest that the time has come for more effort to be invested in another track, promoting social conscience against harm, and a sense of duty to contribute to the common good. Cultural tools _ like street theatre, folk musicals and poster art _ would be effective on plantation workers in remote areas who are normally deprived of food for thought. Investors propelled by economic gain may be a harder nut to crack. But they too need cultural breaks, and a dose of tragedy, parody or comedy should arrest them in theirtracks.