Haze: Do we just suffer or can something be done? (OPINION)

The Star, 21 Jun 2013

KUALA LUMPUR: It’s that time of the year, between June and September, for us to be annually smothered by trans-boundary pollutants that we have euphemistically call the haze that thick and acrid smog from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The blight of haze is worst now in Singapore, parts of adjoining Johor and the Straits of Malacca and these pollutants are brought here by south-westerly winds.

Although for now the haze is confined to parts of Johor and Malacca, it has the potential to spread to other parts of the country as had happened in previous years.

There is nothing to be done except taking mitigating efforts and begging Indonesia to stop the fires, offer assistance in cash or fire fighters and fire fighting equipment’s as we did once in 2006 and suffer the smog as we go about our restricted daily lives.

In Indonesia too, the smog affects everyone within the fire zones but people have become used to it going about their daily routines with just a face marks and uncomplaining.

The dry weather and the need to clear the land in Indonesia mostly by small swidden farmers and by the cheapest way possible firing the bushes all helps to get the fire going but the problem is the south westerly winds that bring the smog over to neighbouring countries.

Big plantation companies are also said to get into the act as in the great haze of 1997 when the ASEAN region was blanketed in smog incurring a total economic loss of over US$9bil.

A year after the great haze, we had the Nipah virus outbreak that decimated our pig industry as well as leaping from beast to man, killing 40% of 257 people who caught it.

US researchers later attributed the emergence of the Nipah virus to giant bats that carry the virus naturally fleeing the Sumatra fires of 1997 and coming over here to nest near pig farms, transmitting the virus to pigs and later to farm workers.

ASEAN countries have been choking on the haze almost annually since the last great haze some 16 years ago.

Is the problem beyond the capacity of Jakarta to resolve?

Ordinary people, visitors and investors are asking this very question. Why can’t they put an end to it once and for all.

Every time we, meaning Malaysia, Singapore and other sufferers, point an accusing finger at Indonesia, the answer comes back; it’s your big plantation companies that are doing it.

This time in Indonesia, a senior Environment Minister official, was quick to blame foreign-owned plantation companies of firing the forest to clear vegetation causing the smog.

The burning of forests to plant oil palm trees either by small-holders or big companies – is a recurrent problem in Indonesia, especially during the annual dry season from June to September.

Yet, Indonesia is the only ASEAN member not to have ratified a 2002 ASEAN pact on preventing haze pollution.

In the meantime, Indonesia has vastly expanded its palm oil plantations, overtaking Malaysia as the world’s biggest supplier of palm oil.

But at what price?

An environmental disaster is in the making each time Indonesia fires its forest or allows others to fire the forest.

The toll of the fires and land clearing is enormous on Indonesia’s forest and its wildlife population.

Not to speak of good neighbourly relations that often hits a sore note each time the haze comes over to our side of the Straits of Malacca.

The main culprits is a lack of political will on the part of Indonesia to combat forest fires simple because burning is fast, cheap, efficient and requires little labour.

It’s burning that puts Indonesia ahead so to speak but places its neighbours at a great disadvantage. We have to suffer from the unwanted affluent of the burning and it is brought to us by winds over which we have no control.

Indonesia owes its neighbours a duty not to cause harm or injuries as a good neighbour and as a matter of simple common law.

And if there is sufficient evidence against foreign owned plantation companies for firing the forest as is claimed by Indonesia, by all means act against them, prosecute the offenders.

Don’t just pass the buck back to us.

Assuredly, both Singaporeans and Malaysians, who are outraged by the blatant conduct of offenders, would cheer such stern action if its forthcoming.

It will show everyone that Indonesia means business for once and will likely see no repeat of the offence in future

But sadly the truth is, such rogue companies, if any, thrive in permissive regimes where commercial interest overrides health and environmental concerns.

The best we can do for now is suffer the haze and for our leaders to nudge big Indonesia to ratify the 2002 trans-boundary haze pollution agreement that ASEAN has adopted.

This will go some distance to curb trans-boundary pollutions.