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Southeast Asia’s Purple Haze

by Elizabeth C. Economy
June 27, 2013

A worker stands as he looks on at fire from burning trees planted for palm oil, during haze in Indonesia's Riau province on June 24, 2013. A worker stands as he looks on at fire from burning trees planted for palm oil, during haze in Indonesia's Riau province on June 24, 2013. (Beawiharta/Courtesy Reuters)


Even before several of my CFR colleagues and I arrived in Indonesia earlier this week for discussions on regional security and governance, headlines in the region’s media were dominated by the haze that was blanketing Singapore and Malaysia—not to mention parts of Indonesia—as a result of the slash-and-burn practices in Sumatra. In an effort to clear land to plant new crops, farmers there burn crop residue, timber, and peat. The result is hundreds of “hotspots,” or fires that contribute to a thick, toxic haze that travels throughout the region. This is despite a government effort to promote “zero burning” and a moratorium on all deforestation in much of the country.

As Huang Yanzhong described in a post earlier this week, this year’s haze marks the most serious since 2007, when economic losses to the region reportedly reached US$9 billion. This time around, Singapore recorded its worst air quality in history, Malaysia closed hundreds of schools, and tourism dropped dramatically. Singapore and Malaysia have both offered assistance, while at the same time calling on Indonesia to step up its game. Indonesia, in turn, has refused the assistance and responded with criticism of its own, with one Minister complaining about other countries “making noise to the world when things go bad.” According to one Indonesian expert, Singapore’s offer of monetary assistance was “insulting.” Indonesian President Yudhoyono, perhaps in an effort to reduce tensions, apologized to the region and promised to devote more resources to the firefighting effort.

This year’s contretemps is emblematic of a broader problem in regional governance and Indonesia’s own state capacity. While the challenge of regional haze has been recognized since at least 1985, in the region’s “Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Agreement,” efforts to build an effective regional response have been stymied. Despite years of agreements to share information, train firefighters, and develop a common air quality index—as well as the establishment of a 2002 “ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution”—the fires continue to burn. Part of the problem rests in the nature of the agreement, which has no enforcement, sanctioning, or dispute settlement mechanism to help ensure countries’ adherence. The more significant flaw, however, is the failure of the chief culprit in the burning—Indonesia—to sign the agreement. Indonesia wants the agreement linked to other issues, such as illegal logging. Without ratification by Indonesia, the agreement cannot have any real impact on forging an effective collective response.

Indonesia’s own weak state capacity poses a second challenge. Enforcement of its forestry regulations suffer from a high level of political and geographic decentralization, which makes it difficult to implement the country’s forest laws; in some cases local officials pass regulations contrary to laws passed by the central government. A powerful palm oil and timber lobby resists the more expensive methods of clearing land, and poor independent farmers have little economic incentive to adopt best forestry practices. Corruption is endemic in the forestry sector at local levels: for example, the former governor of Riau province, which is the source of much of this year’s fires, was arrested for corruption, in part for selling forest permits illegally.

Still, there is hope. An alliance is emerging of domestic and international non-governmental organizations who are working with Jakarta to pinpoint the source of the fires, as well as those responsible. Agribusiness companies, such as Bunge, Caterpillar, and Nestle, are pledging not to buy palm oil or palm oil products from companies that practice slash-and-burn or plant in areas under the moratorium. More can be done. Other countries in the region should make clear to Jakarta that as a regional leader, Indonesia needs to ratify the haze agreement; it can’t be a laggard. Economic incentives to bulldoze, excavate, and compost crop residue and timber rather than burn it could also help reduce the temptation to take the quick and cheap route. Finally, the significant role of Singaporean and Malaysian palm oil and timber companies in Indonesia’s economy offers real opportunities for joint law enforcement efforts if the countries can overcome sovereignty and other political tensions.

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