Along The Watchtower

Published: Wednesday October 7, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday October 7, 2015 MYT 10:43:16 AM

In a daze over the haze

FOR more than a month, we have been choking from the haze wafting over from Indonesia’s forest and plantation fires, and the worst is yet to come.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) warned last week that current conditions and forecasts suggest that this year’s haze would be among the most severe on record.

The region was hardest hit in 1997, when smog from raging fires spread over 9.7 million hectares in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and hung over Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand for months, causing an estimated US$9bil losses to the region’s agricultural, tourism and transport industries.

Back then, an emergency was declared in Sarawak when the air pollution index (API) reading hit 839.

Under Malaysia’s API, a reading of between 51 and 100 is moderate, from 100 and 200 indicates unhealthy, between 201 and 300 very unhealthy, above 300 hazardous while an emergency has to be declared if it exceeds 500.

At the level of 300, it is already as bad as smoking 80 cigarettes a day.

But even without Nasa’s predictions, we already know that the situation has been getting increasingly dire with flights cancelled or delayed, schools shut down and more people seeking medical treatment for respiratory, skin and eye ailments.

The acrid pall has become a recurring nightmare and except for lip service, Indonesia has done little over the years to remedy the situation.

Officially, burning to clear land has been banned in Indonesia since 2009 under a law punishable with hefty fines and jail terms, but it appears to be a specious law with poor enforcement.

It is rampant corruption which fuels the fires, as local leaders and plantation companies continue their wanton burning, even in reserved forests.

A classic example is the 83,000ha Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau, Sumatra, the last of the lowland topical rainforest in the island, which is the habitat for critically endangered elephants and tigers.

It was gazetted in 2004 and its boundaries were expanded in 2009, but it has already lost more than half of its trees through illegal logging and forest clearing fires.

According to Global Forest Watch, half of the fires in Riau are in protected areas or where new agriculture or plantation development is banned under Indonesia’s national forest conversion moratorium.

Most of the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan are blazing beneath peat lands, which are drained and dried out before being cultivated.

Peat is the ideal terrain for palm oil plantations and the paper and pulp industry.

For more than three decades, local farmers and contractors hired by plantation firms have been slashing and burning forests between the months of June and September each year.

And it only costs as little as Rp500,000 (RM148) to burn thousands of hectares, compared with as much as Rp7mil (RM2,073) to clear just one hectare using heavy machinery.

High levels of carbon in the peat cause the fires to spread rapidly, and they are difficult to put out as they smoulder deep underground.

As of last week, Indonesian police were investigating 232 cases of forest and plantation fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands.

Of those, 190 are farmers and contractors and 42 are companies.

Although Indonesia had said earlier that it was also probing Malay­sian and Singaporean companies, only two foreign firms – one Chinese and the other Australian – are among the 42.

Under Indonesian law, companies are liable for fires that break out in their concessions, whether or not started by them.

According to one NGO, the Indonesian Forum for the Environ­ment, 196 plantation companies in Central Kalimantan have fires burning in their concession areas.

As for arrests, the police initially identified 212 suspects but only detained 72, including five plantation company staff.

Indonesia has either frozen or revoked the permits of four companies.

It has also deployed more than 3,700 soldiers and 8,000 police personnel and four water-bombing planes to put out the fires but it is obvious that it cannot cope.

Strangely, Indonesia has rejected Malaysia’s offer to help put out the fires, just as it dismissed Singapore’s earlier offer.

In 2002, the 10 Asean member countries signed the Asean agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Kuala Lumpur. The agreement, the first in the world binding a group of nations to tackle trans-boundary pollution caused by land and forest fires, was regarded as a global role model.

It needs all parties to cooperate in developing and implementing steps to prevent, monitor, and mitigate trans-boundary haze by controlling sources of fires, and developing monitoring, assessment and early warning systems.

It also calls for the exchange of information and technology, mutual assistance, and prompt response to requests for information and legal, administrative and other actions to implement the obligations.

But Indonesia only ratified the agreement last year – 12 years later – and it was the last country to do so.

Clearly, whatever it had been doing all these years, and what it is doing now, is not enough to resolve the huge problem faced by its neighbours annually.

As for Asean, it has appeared to be in a daze over the haze. With diplomacy having distinctively failed in the issue, Malaysia, as the current chair, needs to do more to get Indonesia’s commitment to resolve it.

The recent callous statement by Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla seems to reflect the lack of real concern.

He said: “Look at how long they have enjoyed fresh air from our green environment and forests when there were no fires. Are they grateful? But when forest fires occur, a month at the most, haze pollutes their regions. So why should there be an apology?”

Now we are being told that it might take three years for Indonesia to tackle the forest burning problem, as stated by President Joko Widodo.

Must we endure three more years of the toxic haze belching out from the deliberately lit fires?

  • Associate editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this line by comedy writer Robert Orben: There’s so much ­pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs, there would be no place to put it all.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: M Veera Pandiyan, haze

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