Stopping the haze: All diplomatic efforts exhausted?

By Jolene Yeo

The Southeast Asia region finds itself blanketed by grim skies, its air smothered with haze, every now and then. The recurring annual haze season has long been a sore point in the diplomatic relations between Indonesia and its neighbours and fellow ASEAN member states. The year 2015 saw the worst of the haze as the El Nino weather phenomenon escalated and sustained the spread of the forest fires. Last October, ASEAN environment ministers set a target for the region to be haze-free by 2020.

But have diplomatic efforts to curb the acrid haze crisis been more about form than substance?

Ruffling the feathers

Trenchant statements by officials of the affected countries have ruffled the feathers of the countries involved. For 18 years, acrid haze from forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia has resulted in the region being engulfed by thick smog periodically, usually in the middle of each year. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – the three countries most heavily ensnared by the haze – continue the perennial blame game of finger pointing.

Not only has the haze clouded their sight and reduced visibility, it has apparently been of detriment to the judgement of Indonesian officials. Indonesia’s government officials gave confusing and conflicting verbal statements on the haze issue. A report from the Singapore S. Rajaratnam School of International studies found that many in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were annoyed by Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s denouncing of Singapore and Malaysia for complaining about the haze.

In a statement to the media, not only did Kalla’s not display Indonesia’s sense of remorse towards contributing to the haze, he gave a quizzical public statement saying that “For 11 months, they enjoyed clean air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset”. However, Hamdhani Mukhdar, the Indonesian Member of Parliament in charge of environment and international relations, was more diplomatic in expressing the country’s apology to its neighbours, highlighting Jakarta’s US$1 million worth of efforts to douse the fires.

Public eyes on private woes

While Indonesia’s neighbours lament the air quality during the haze season, Indonesia’s necessity in addressing the haze problem is no less a domestic affair than one concerning diplomatic relations and Indonesia’s role as a responsible stakeholder in the global world order.

The plight of Indonesians living near the sources of the lethal haze is tragic. In 2015, raging forest fires across Indonesia caused up to half a million cases of respiratory infections, and resulted in the deaths of ten people living near the areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia. The Guardian reports that the peatland fires had caused the air to turn a toxic sepia colour in the worst hit areas, with the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) levels pushed towards 2,000. According to international guidelines, a PSI level above 300 is considered hazardous.

Not only has the haze taken a toll on the health of Indonesians and the residents of its neighbouring countries, one particular group of residents that have long escaped the media limelight, until now, are imperilled by the consequences of the raging fires—Orang-utans. In 2015, The Guardian reported that 358 fire “hotspots” were detected via satellite image inside the Sabangau Forest in Borneo, which when added to other populations of orang-utans around Indonesia totals up to one-third of the world’s population of wild orang-utans.

Collaboration or condemnation?

While Singapore and Malaysia were fast to point fingers at Indonesia for being the source of the fires, further investigations revealed that the fires were caused by the “collective negligence” of companies, many of which were multinational conglomerations whose operates span past Indonesia. Others, such as Henry Purnomo, scientist and professor at Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University, were of the view that the culprits were instead poor small scale farmers looking to expand their farmland, and rogue operators intent on illegally clearing forests for land acquisition.

Calling this a “crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions”, Sutopo Puro Nugroho, spokesman for the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency expressed the urgency to focus on dealing with the recurring haze issue instead of pointing fingers.

Singapore clamped down on five firms after finding them guilty of causing the forest fires that resulted in the haze. Under Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, errant firms can be fined up to $100,000 a day, up to an overall cap of $2 million, for causing the haze.

Indonesia too has devised plans to tackle the issue. The Peatland Restoration Agency was set up in January this year aims to restore about 2 million ha of peatland. These measures however, have been said to be largely reactive, stop-gap measures that do not address the root of the problem. The Straits Times writes that businesses must be held strictly to environmental standards that offer no wriggle room – something that is clearly difficult to enforce given the vast expanse of Indonesia’s territory and the trans-boundary nature of the haze.

With the El Nino spell exacerbating the haze said to be over, it remains to be seen if the Southeast Asian countries can themselves cast a breath of fresh air to the hazy situation.