Remove haze of recriminations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 1:51am

Haze from forest fires in Indonesia is a hazard for Southeast Asia every dry season, yet each year, the same cycle takes place. Concerns are expressed about the slash-and-burn methods used to clear land, foreign palm oil plantation owners are named and shamed and Jakarta is called on to sign up to a regional treaty and impose law and order. When the smoke has dispersed, though, all is forgotten. Then, as on June 21 when air pollution hit record levels in Singapore, the lack of action becomes obvious.

But it is not as simple as forcing Indonesia to ratify the decade-old Association of South East Asian nations' Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. The nations' decentralised system of government, high levels of corruption and poor law enforcement make ratifying the pact merely window-dressing. Nor, with farmers opting for cheap land clearing rather than using heavy equipment and waste composting, is there a chance of a shift. A thick layer of peat in the soil, difficult to extinguish when it catches fire, compounds the challenges.

Inaction can be costly. Should the wind be blowing in the wrong direction between June and September, economies suffer as citizens stay indoors and business people and tourists cancel visits. Diplomatic relations with Indonesia, rarely smooth, are further strained. At the back of minds are fears of a repeat of the 1997 haze that cost the region an estimated US$9 billion in health bills, disrupted air traffic and lost business.

The matter is high on the agenda of this week's Asean security meeting in Brunei; the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore met on Saturday to lay out positions. Sustained co-operation can help avoid the anguish and recriminations. Indonesian officials say that they are doing their best and have so far put out dozens of fires and made 14 arrests. But such efforts do not ensure a long-term solution. That will come only through ratifying the haze pact and implementing its provisions nationally and locally. For Jakarta, that means resolve, enforcement and sustainable farming.