30 years later, is there an end in sight to smoke problem?

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Source: The Malaysian Insider

An Indonesian soldier trying to put out a peatland fire in Ogan Ilir, Sumatra, in September. President Joko Widodo has instructed his ministers to revoke licences of companies found to have used fire to clear land, which is blamed for the smoke blanketing much of Southeast Asia. – Reuters pic, October 28, 2015.

For decades, smoke from Indonesia blows into Malaysia towards year-end, erasing the country’s iconic skylines and driving people indoors to wait out what has now become known as the “haze season”.

A headline from nearly 20 years ago said “Asean ministers to discuss smog problem” – and in 2015, they are still discussing it.

After talking for so long and extensively, what have Malaysia and Indonesia achieved?

“Sadly, nothing much,” said Dr Helena Varkkey, a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies, in an email interview.

“Haze has only become more severe as the years go by. Both governments continue to call for stricter enforcement of zero-burning and controlled burning laws. They, however, are continually being flouted.”

Varkkey, who has written more than a dozen academic articles on smoke, said while Indonesia had brought several individuals and companies to court for illegal burning and sentenced them, this was “a very small proportion of the total wrongdoers”.

“Otherwise, both countries usually respond to haze in a very reactive manner. Firefighters and aircraft are deployed only after fires are detected, and not much, if any, preventive actions are taken before the burning season.

“The government (and people) seem to forget the haze as soon as the sky is clear – out of sight out of mind.”

Varkkey (pic) said Southeast Asia has been experiencing almost annual smoke since 1982 and, 33 years later, Malaysians shouldn’t hold their breath for year-round clear skies to return.

“The haze problem persists simply because of the lack of enforcement. Both countries have rather strong laws governing clearing of land. However, companies, especially, are able to get away with flouting them.

“This is because there are often close patronage relations between companies and the governing bodies.

“Individuals from these companies are often connected to government elite either through genuine friendships or reciprocal relations built through election funding or other political contributions.”

She said these close relationships allowed companies to gain – what should, by right, be illegal – access to peatlands, and to get away with burning if and when it happens.

For example, Varkkey said, policemen purposely delayed investigations so that evidence could be cleared, adding that even if cases were brought to court, they were often dropped with no explanation.

But although the problem persists in Indonesia, neighbouring countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are feeling the burn.

The smoke from Indonesia’s fires have forced schools here to shut down for several days at a time, flights to be cancelled, and has reportedly triggered increase in cases of respiratory illnesses across several states.

At its peak, the air pollutant index (API) recorded a “very unhealthy” level of 308 for Shah Alam on October 4, at 9am.

But Malaysia’s hands were mostly tied in the matter, given that the problem and solution remained in Indonesia, said Varkkey.

“However, the Malaysian government can play a stronger role in pressuring Malaysian plantation companies operating in Indonesia to adhere to laws, and possibly even holding them responsible for their actions in Malaysian courts, even though the wrongdoings occurred in Indonesia.

“Singapore is trying out such a law, and this mechanism will be something to watch for Malaysia.

“If the enforcement problems mentioned above are not addressed, and if patronage relations continue to reign supreme over laws and regulations, there is little hope to end the years of haze.”

She said in the early years, smoke was normally attributed to villagers in various parts of Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia practising “swidden agriculture”, which involved slashing and burning different parts of the jungle to make way for new crops.

But as time went by, new culprits emerged: commercial plantations and, to a certain extent, pulp and paper, said Varkkey.

“A key contributor (is) plantations opening up on peatlands. Even though peatlands are protected lands, demand for land and also other factors (like lack of villagers living here) have encouraged (usually illegal) opening of these lands.

“Peatlands are highly fire-prone when dried out in preparation for planting. When burned, it produces the thick, black, and heavy smoke that easily travels across state boundaries. And these fires are notoriously hard to put out, as they burn underground.”

She said for the annual smoke to disappear for good, governments must go beyond their “regular reactive response”.

Proactive action was needed, she said, and suggested as an example that they use aircraft to circle jungles and croplands before the burning season to warn people they were being watched.

She said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, had instructed his ministers to revoke licences of companies found to have used fire and this had allowed the government to identify thousands of guilty companies.

“However, it still remains to be seen if these cases will be resolved satisfactorily.

“If patronage relations prove to still be stronger than Jokowi’s clout, then we should all brace ourselves for more haze in the following years.” – October 28, 2015.