Asean still fiddling as Sumatra burns

Asean still fiddling as Sumatra burns

18 February 2014

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ASEAN — Haze is spreading across the region once again as companies slash and burn to create plantations; we need collective action to snuff out this annual problem

It arrives every year around this time, when dry weather prompts people in Indonesia’s Sumatra to burn forest and scrub to make way for plantations. Fires send plumes of smoke into the air, where wind – sometimes storm force – blows it across the region.

Neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand are blanketed in a choking haze that leaves millions at risk of health problems. Worsening air quality brings suffering in the form of acute respiratory tract infections to thousands. It also threatens disruption to all types of transport in the region – land, air and sea.

Last week, media reported that haze is already spreading from forest fires in Riau, Indonesia, just across the Malacca Strait from Singapore and Malaysia.

Singaporeans are living in fear, as the number of hot spots across Sumatra grows by the day. More than 450 have so far been detected and the haze might worsen this week, depending on wind strength. Fires increased sharply from 30 in early January to 248 early this month, according to the Indonesia National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In Dumai, Riau, pollution has reached an alarming level, with the Ambient Air Quality Monitoring programme showing a level of 449 on the Pollutant Standards Index.

Asean countries are well aware of this environmental issue. Leaders, ministers and senior officials have sat down together many times to address the problem of haze. They have committed to cooperate to tackle the problem in the short, medium and long terms. But so far, action has been little and rare.

Asean has agreements and plans to handle this regional issue but implementation has been tangled in domestic red tape and the interests of the palm oil industry.

Indonesia, the source of the problem, has not done enough to control the situation. Its government has allocated 1.5 trillion rupiah (US$129 million) to forest-fire management this year but still cannot guarantee the haze will not reach neighbouring countries. Authorities in Jakarta have also urged the private sector to help, but have not made it clear how it could contribute to anti-haze efforts.

Police have charged six people for burning forestland in Riau province’s Bengkalis, Indragiri Hilir and Pekanbaru, but there must be many more fire-starters still at large. However, even arresting them all would not solve the problem.

This is because the root cause of the fires is not individuals but huge plantation companies. Last year, Indonesian police arrested 33 people over forest fires that broke out between June and July. Two of the suspects were Malaysians who worked as managers at a plantation company; they are now standing trial at the Pelalawan District Court.

Asean and its members – especially those close to the problems and causes of the haze – cannot simply point the figure at Indonesia. They must do more themselves to solve the annual crisis. Many instruments to tackle this issue already exist, but the regional grouping needs to seek genuine solutions by utilising them effectively.

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