Fight against ‘haze export’ must not cease at pact ratification

Fight against ‘haze export’ must not cease at pact ratification

22 September 2014

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Indonesia — “Indonesia must be held accountable for the haze pollution here!” a strategic studies classmate of mine yelled last Tuesday.

At the time, the haze had affected Singapore since the previous Sunday. Fortunately, she was not Singaporean, which helped to alleviate my feelings of guilt as a citizen of a country that has repeatedly been blamed for the annual occurrence of trans-boundary haze pollution.
Still, she had the right to complain as she had also been affected by the polluted air.

I paused for a while before responding. I was aware that I would not be able to completely address her grievance. I acted defensively, sharing the blame for the haze on foreign plantation companies operating in Sumatra, where forest fires cause the haze that is then blown over neighboring countries, particularly Singapore and Malaysia.

It was fortunate that later that day the Indonesian House of Representatives unanimously agreed to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution, a regional policy platform that obliges Indonesia, as an ASEAN member state, to actively involve itself in efforts to mitigate air pollution, both nationally and through intensified regional and international cooperation.

The ratification of the agreement helped me explain to my classmate the following day that Indonesia was in fact complying with its regional commitments.

The House’s ratification came over a decade after the agreement was signed in June 2002 in Kuala Lumpur and came into force in November 2003.

It also came only a month after the Singaporean parliament passed the 2014 Trans-boundary Haze Pollution Act, which enables regulators to sue individuals or companies in neighboring countries that cause severe air pollution in Singapore through slash-and-burn agricultural practices.

Apart from the House’s inertia, the blame for repeated annual haze problems should be placed on ignorant local government officials, particularly those of the provinces where the hot spots have frequently been identified.

Last year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stepped in, ordering the immediate water bombing of the forest fires, and apologized to his ASEAN neighbors.

Now that the common regional platform in the fight against trans-boundary haze pollution is in place, firm law enforcement must be taken indiscriminately against any company and individual found to practice slash and burn policies.

The verdict of the Pelalawan District Court in Riau province earlier this month, which sentenced Malaysian company PT ADEI Plantation and Industry and its general manager, Malaysian Danesuvaran KR Singam, for their activities that caused forest fires in the region, should not be the last law enforcement action.

Special attention should be exercised in law enforcement agencies in the regions, particularly when these hot spots are located in provinces outside Java — the main island in Indonesia.

It has become an open secret that often criminal cases prosecuted and tried in regions far away from Java end in verdicts that defy common sense and justice. Certain cases never even reach court.

All of this happens because the supervision of local law enforcers and media coverage is minimal, if not absent.

A thorough legal framework to fight this rogue business practice should also include a move by local banks and stock market authorities to blacklist such companies or investors.

Apart from legal actions against the violators, the general public could engage in a concerted move to punish the companies by, among other actions, filing civil lawsuits against them and by boycotting the products of plantation companies that practice slash-and-burn methods.

A different measure could be taken against such violators, with the government, for example, imposing import bans and trade restrictions on the products of companies linked to illegal agricultural activities.

In regard to collective measures to be applied in the aftermath of Indonesia’s ratification of the ASEAN agreement, it is perhaps advisable to have a joint secretariat that would coordinate the information, reports and policies needed to address the problems resulting from trans-boundary haze pollution in the region.

As Environment Ministry deputy minister for environmental damage control and climate change Arief Yuwono said last month, the joint secretariat should bring together international experts who would work on comprehensive recommendations for state members dealing with land and forest fires that cause trans-boundary air pollution.

Upon the establishment of the secretariat, the campaign against trans-boundary air pollution could begin with voluntarily-based fundraising from state members to finance programs as recommended in Article 20 of the haze agreement, Arief added.

To sum up, the fight against trans-boundary haze pollution is not a one-man-show as it requires not only regional cooperation within the ASEAN framework — specifically among countries affected by the haze — but also requires integrated measures among related agencies and organizations at the domestic level within Indonesia, including the ruling authorities, law enforcement agencies, the media and last but not least, the people.

All the necessary elements for the fight against seasonal haze are already in place. What is needed now is the serious implementation of all commitments.

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