The haze: It’s your fault

By Holly Reeves

“The haze is really smelly and is giving me a headache, even though I’ve closed all the windows in my house,” said Selangor resident Anisah Shurfa. “When is this problem ever going to be solved?”

Singapore blames Indonesia. Malaysia blames the weather. Governments blame small-scale farmers. But if you are not careful how you shop, you carry a share of the blame too.

The 2016 haze season has brought yet another smelly, dirty blanket in the air over Southeast Asia’s cities. We are told that either Malaysia’s forest fires or Indonesia’s slash-and-burn farming practices to clear vegetation for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations are to blame.

Palm oil is used widely in modern production. It is added to everything from lipstick to bread to instant noodles. As the world’s largest producer and exporter of the product, it is one of Indonesia’s key foreign exchange earners. At the same time, the smoky fires its farming can create are one of Indonesia’s key foreign policy issues.

Where’s the fire?

Riset Perkebunan Nusantara, a state-owned research firm, expects Indonesia’s crude palm oil production to drop 4.2% to 32 million tons in 2016. This is caused by both the dry weather caused by the El Nino weather pattern, and the toxic haze that occurred in 2015.

This natural downturn is bad for the economy, but good for neighbourly relations. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has to contend with pressure to curb palm production by countries heavily affected by smog such as Malaysia and Singapore. He has said he would not be offering new licenses to increase farmland, but does expect existing sites to be more efficient.

The Riset Perkebunan Nusantara report also sheds some interesting light on where responsibilities lie. In 2015, Indonesia had a total of 11.3 million hectares of palm oil plantation, consisting of 750,000 hectares of plantations owned by the state, 5.97 million hectares of plantations owned by the private sector and 4.58 million hectares of plantations owned by smallholders.

So this is not just an issue to tackle with smallholders that it is often painted to me. This is just as much about the government and large-scale holdings. What does that mean for the average person?

Clean air starts at home

If you want cleaner skies, you would need to think about a cleaner shopping basket. In fact, 91.7% of Singaporean survey respondents were willing to pay more for certified sustainable products that help minimise the haze, according to an online poll of over 1,000 individuals.

“People are willing to use their wallets to support responsible brands, which is encouraging,” says Tan Yi Han, the president of campaign group, PM.Haze. “However, our survey also shows that consumers lack awareness of how to identify haze-free companies.”

Look for products marked with either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for sustainable paper or the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), for sustainable palm oil, the group explains.

ASEAN’s natural territory

Haze is a phenomenon that cries out for ASEAN cooperation. It is an issue that moves across borders. It requires common standards. And as it is, it is putting the strain on the bloc’s regional relations.

“We must not let companies and corporations get away with their most egregious acts… The message to everybody, whether you are Singaporean or foreigner, if you violate our laws and if our laws allow us to act within the ambit of those laws, we will take the law to its full extent,” said Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli.

Mr Masagos pointed out that Singapore has used its Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, passed in 2014, to go after companies that started fires or let their concessions burn. Six such companies have been served papers so far.

But what can ASEAN practically do in support? After all, these types of diplomatic firefights will do little to quell the flames heating the region. The bloc has a haze policy and programme of action but bilateral actions have so far been more effective.

Management of peatland is a clear way forward. President Widodo has already taken steps to create a Peatland Restoration Agency, which he said he had tasked with, “creating and implementing an action plan so that we can convince the world that we are very serious about overcoming the damage caused to forests and peatlands.”

And other ASEAN nations stand ready to give their support. For example, Singapore has already led a peatland management programme to raise awareness of what can be done to manage and restore this terrain. It is a good place to start in revitalising the way the region farms, and the way we work together.

Other hotspots that should be addressed include strengthening the system for countries to call on each other’s emergency services early in the haze season to tackle blazes. This worked well in 2015 but was brought into play with too little too late. It’s clear that ASEAN has a place in tackling these types of problems, but it has yet to find its feet and take it.

Looking to the future, Nazir Foead, chief of Indonesia’s new peatland management agency, promised that haze problems would never happen again. But in the dream of a haze-free ASEAN by 2020, the impetus to make that happen might start with Indonesia – but it finishes with us all.