ASEAN — Environment ministers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have agreed to ban all open-air burning activities in a bid to combat the recurrent haze.
Open-air burning activities like slash-and-burn agriculture are the biggest culprits of the region’s haze problem.
Permits for burning activities at fire-prone hotspots will also be suspended and ministers have promised a quicker emergency response to fight fires should the need arise.
In addition, Indonesia revealed that it is introducing a law next week that will impose penalties for open-air burning.
These measures were announced at a news conference on Wednesday, following the eighth meeting of the sub-regional ministerial steering committee (MSC) formed in 2006, which was tasked to look into the haze situation in the region.
But while the political will is strong, how it translates into action is another matter.
Indonesia, which has been blamed for causing the pollution, hopes that its new law will give it more teeth to punish offenders. The law is expected to be passed on September 8.
Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Yaacob Ibrahim, said: “I appreciate the difficulty that Pak Rachmat has on the ground, because enforcing it (the law) is not easy. But at least there is a movement by the Indonesian government to enforce this, and now that Pak Rahmat’s ministry has the power to penalise (offenders), I think that’s a very major move.”
Indonesia also played down recent comments by its Forestry Minister, M S Kaban, who was earlier reported to have said that the Indonesian government will not take firm action against those setting fires in Sumatra, unless flights are disrupted and protests break out in neighbouring countries.
Indonesian State Minister of Environment, Rachmat Witoelar, said: “These comments are maybe sexy for you to quote, but does not really reflect what we’re doing. We are fighting fires.”
The ministers also said the measures by the ASEAN MSC had helped to reduce the haze in their own countries.
Thailand’s Supat Wangwonwatana, director general of pollution control at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said southern Thailand had not experienced any haze for the past three years.
Brunei’s Environment Minister, Abdullah Baker, summed it up by saying, “If the MSC had not been there, the situation would have been worse.”
The ministers noted that the haze situation had improved in recent years as a result of joint efforts, but said it would be impractical to aim for a “zero-haze situation”.
They also cautioned that with a stronger El Nino event predicted this year, haze pollution may become worse in the next few months as dryer weather will lead to more hotspots and fires.