Singapore — The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (THP) wassigned in 2002 and came into force in November 2003. Indonesia, represented bythe deputy state minister for the environment, signed the agreement in 2002.However, it will not be legally binding unless Indonesia ratifies the treaty.
Without Indonesia joining as a party, the treaty will lose its purest intention,that is to use national efforts and regional cooperation in preventing andmonitoring transboundary haze pollution. Since Indonesia is the main source ofthe forest fires and the associated haze pollution, it seems to be reluctant toratify the treaty.
The Office of the State Minister for the Environment has argued that the reasonwhy the ratification process has been going very slowly is the complicated,bureaucratic procedure an international treaty has to undergo in order to beadopted as a legal instrument. The ratification and implementation of theagreement will require strong cross-departmental cooperation, involving at leastfour ministries: the Office of the State Minister for the Environment, ForestryMinistry, Agriculture Ministry and Foreign Affairs Ministry. But the Office ofthe State Minister for the Environment should take the lead in the whole process.
According to Indonesian law, an international treaty has to be enacted as a law,which requires a long and tedious process of public hearings and meetings at theHouse of Representatives. The bill on the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement onTHP was initially considered as one out of 78 bills the House would debate in2006, but the legislative body later decided to drop it.
It is seen that environmental issues have never been on the main agenda ofIndonesia’s national policy. Although the problem of transboundary pollution isnot only a national but also a regional concern, it still receives littleattention from the decision makers. Indonesia is bogged down by other pressingpriorities, such as terrorism, the oil price hike and subsidies, and othereconomic and social problems.
There is, however, a more fundamental problem as to why the bill is notconsidered urgent. Apart from the bureaucratic process and lack ofinfrastructure and budget, there is a general opinion among legislators andother important decision makers that the treaty will bring no clear benefits toIndonesia.
Indonesia appears to have the fear that the ratification will have some unclearimplications. The first would be its implication on local regulations. It islikely that in the longer term, the treaty will develop as the problems alsogrow so that it might include enforcement and liability clauses. This willrequire Indonesia to adjust to it by applying more stringent regulations. Forexample, the existing Government Regulation No. 4/2001 on environmentaldegradation and/or pollution associated with forest/land fires would have to beamended by adding a clause on zero burning and controlled burning practices.
There should be a strict limitation on activities in peatland, which is prone tofires, to mention another example.
Learning from previous experience — where there has been only one case heard incourt for those violating Law No. 23/1997 on environmental management — moreefforts have to be spent to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of the law.The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and the Riau provincialadministration have sued companies suspected of setting forest and land firesbetween 2003 and 2004, but all cases were dropped without clear reason.
Another implication is related to the private sector. Although the activities ofland/forest utilization involve private operators, the treaty mainly deals withstate obligations and not those of the private sector. Biased information, forexample on the zero burning regulation, will likely lead to resistance from bigtimber and palm oil industries and logging concessionaires, who have turned outto be the main source of the latest land/forest fires.
Another important stakeholder to the agreement is the farmers and villagers, whouse traditional slash and burn methods to open land for agricultural purposes.Banning such a practice will adversely effect their economy and may lead to moresocial unrest. It is important to note that — based on the report from Eyes onthe forest (www.eyesontheforest.or.id) — the latest fires in Indonesia whichoccurred between July and August 2005 were mostly from big timber and oil palmplantations and logging concessions.
However, farmers and small landholders must have contributed to the firessomehow. The zero burning policy was adopted by ASEAN in 1999 to restrict — butnot necessarily ban completely — the use of fires in land clearing. It is fairenough if the zero burning policy is applied to big oil palm, timber and rubberplantation companies, while farmers, villagers and small holders may be giventhe concession to allow them to use fire in a controllable manner.
Considering that zero burning techniques are only effective if applied on largersize plantations, farmers and villagers will not have to give up their currentpractice at all, but stricter control and monitoring measures should be appliedin order to prevent fires from a small plantation from spreading to adjacentforests or larger plantations.
It is therefore unnecessary to ban the use of fire in small farms andplantations given that it is the only method farmers can afford, and in factsmall fires are easier to control while the zero burning technique usingmachinery is not effective at all on small tracts of land.
A good example is the Malaysia’s Environmental Quality Act, where open burningis prohibited on peat soils, swamp areas and for large-scale plantations, but isstill allowed in areas of 20 hectares or less, as well as for certain activitiesincluding religious practices, training/research activities, disease control andshifting cultivation.
Meanwhile, the prejudice against the treaty is a result of a lack ofunderstanding of the issues in the treaty. There has not been sufficientdissemination of information and a targeted approach toward government officialsand members of the legislature dealing with the issue.
The pressure from other ASEAN member countries, who suffered from the haze in1997/1998 and recently in August 2005, does not seem to be effective enough topush Indonesia to act rapidly. The government officials dealing with the issueshould have a clear understanding that the haze problem is posing a threat, notonly to the environment, but also to the economy of the region and the country.
More sound diplomatic persuasion from other ASEAN member countries is alsoneeded. The role of ASEAN, as the governing body of the treaty is by no meansunimportant. ASEAN should consider providing or raising the bulk of theresources for outreach activities. Or, will it need another dry season with fireand haze next year for us to take the necessary measures?