Lots of smoke, but no fire

Lots of smoke, but no fire

30 October 2006

published by www.bangkokpost.com

Thailand —  “Unable to see their way clear” correctlydescribes the recent plight of millions of people in Indonesia, Singapore,Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. It also describes the action of their governmentsand other Asean leaders. The people have been unable to see or to breatheclearly because of the annual sharing of smoke and smog by Indonesian farmersand corporations. The governments have been unable to see their way to solvingthis enormous inconvenience, economic burden and, worst of all, health threat.Citizens of Asean deserve far better from their governments, and from theregional group as a whole.

The source of the so-called haze that chokes, blinds and sickens Indonesiaand neighbours each year is clear enough. Corporate farmers in particular, aswell as small-time land owners, burn off their acreage in the dry season, aspart of their traditional preparation for a new crop year.

Each year for the past couple of decades, the amount of farmed land inKalimantan and Sumatra provinces has grown. In many areas of these islands inparticular, big companies have been increasing their cultivated land, using fireas a crude clearing system. Therefore, the number and size of fires have bothescalated. That is the source, but only part of the cause of the smokey haze.Ignorance, arrogance and a lack of responsibility play major roles in making thehaze, and in making it worse. There are apparently many people in Indonesia,some of them well educated, who believe that burning off old fields is anefficient and effective preparation for a new crop year.

Others know much better, but feel that so long as they can get away withusing fire, it is easier than other methods. The logging firms burn offundergrowth to get to the good timber, and the corporate farmers burn at will.It is certainly easy to blame the fires on unidentified, small-farm owners, as away of getting unearned sympathy. The farmers have no access to the media, whichis dominated on this issue by the Indonesian government and slick PR agenciesworking for the corporate polluters. The truth is that if farmers with smallland holdings were the chief fire starters, the haze would pose little problemeven at the local level. In addition, a little education would go a long waywith such farmers. A few years of demonstrating alternative, effective landpreparation that involves no fire would soon convince land owners to try morefriendly land-clearing methods.

After two horrendous years of fires actually killed people in Indonesia andas far away as Thailand in 1997 and 1998, Indonesia’s neighbours complained.Jakarta was sympathetic, but prone to making excuses. Heavier fines were imposedby law on fire-starters, but the enforcement was pathetic. Then, as now,Singapore and Malaysia were actually unhealthy in many places, the air toxic.Indonesian school children had to stay at home, flights were grounded andhospitals from Brunei to Satun treated thousands of cases of respiratorydisorder.

Enter Asean, timorously. After four years of talking, Asean signed anagreement on what sensitive officials delicately decided to call “transboundaryhaze pollution” _ because if it was just in Indonesia, no problem. All theaffected countries ratified the agreement, except one. This year, the 10thanniversary of the first big smoke-out, Indonesian President Susilo BambangYudhoyono has promised to ratify the agreement.

But Indonesia’s parliamentary commission for the environment has actuallyvoted to delay ratification. First, say legislators, Thailand has to stopillegal fishing in Indonesian waters, and Malaysia has to stop illegallog-buying.

Malaysian Environment Minister Azmi Khalid got it exactly right when he saidthere were too many meetings, not enough action on the ground. The annual hazemakes Indonesia a bad neighbour. Asean environment ministers are to meet nextweek in the Philippines. If they do not have an enforceable, forward-lookingplan to fight the Indonesia haze by then, they should be called to account bycitizens in their home countries who are threatened by the many dangers of toxicsmoke.

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