Malaysia/Indonesia — Malaysia and Indonesia have struck a deal to withhold critical information on forest fires in Sumatra which cause the annual haze in the region.
Southeast Asian counterparts Singapore, Thailand and Brunei, countries also affected by the haze, were understandably upset with the deal.
The Edge Review reported that the deal comes after the region experienced the worst haze since 1997. In June and July, the haze caused schools and businesses in Malaysia and Singapore to be closed, posed health problems and affected air travel.
Documents retrieved from recent regional meetings showed that Malaysia and Indonesia signed an agreement to exchange digital-geo-referenced maps to show when and where the forest fires started. It will give information on who started the fires.
The maps would be evidence for authorities to take legal action and thus make companies like Sime Darby, plantation owners and governments more responsible and accountable when clearing forests.
The online magazine, quoting Asean sources, said Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta have conspired to keep the information to themselves and their relevant ministries.
A source complained that any favourable treatment given to big Malaysian companies by Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur would be at the expense of millions in the region forced to live with the thick smog.
“Singapore has said this does fall short of what it’s been trying to achieve,” the source said, adding that the new Asean secretary-general from Vietnam, Le Luong Minh, is also angered by the deal.
In 1997, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad banned journalists from covering the haze when it struck the first time. He claimed there was an international conspiracy to smear the country’s image.
The same year, climate scientists claimed that 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon were released into the atmosphere, enough to speed up the increase of global carbon dioxide levels.
There are about 24 million hectares of peat, of which 70% are in Indonesia. It can reach depths of about 20 metres and can take up to months to finish burning. Even heavy rains cannot put out the flames underground because of its depth.
The trans-boundary Asean treaty to provide regional response to the fires, first drawn up in 2002 by all Asean members, met resistance when Jakarta was unwilling to sign it.
But during the latest haze incident, Jakarta seemed ready to sign until the cosy relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia came to light.
The Edge Review quoted yet another source who said self-interest had resulted in the latest “back-pedalling” after an announcement was made to share geo-digital information and agreements reached in Bali last year.
“Greater transparency is required to make plantation companies and land owners responsible for the haze, more accountable, and employing best management practices in land-clearing activities as well as to undertake concerted efforts in fire suppression,” the group of Asean countries said at that time.
The deal between Malaysia and Indonesia has cast doubt on whether the Haze Monitoring System due to be signed by Asean next month will be realised.
Scientists, meanwhile, have predicted that peat deposits, necessary for the preservation of rainforests, could be wiped out by 2040 looking at the current rate burning.
The region’s political credibility will be put to the test due to its inability to resolve the haze issue in a timely manner.