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By Stephen Gardner. The haze is back. Forest and peatland fires in western Indonesia are causing clouds of thick smoke full of unhealthy particles, which blow north across Malaysia and Singapore, disrupting daily life and causing a health hazard.

Indonesia's government is under pressure to deal with the haze. The default position of the authorities in Jakarta seems to be to blame companies that operate in the affected regions.

For example, charges have been reportedly levied against Bumi Mekar Hijau, a plantation company that supplies Asia Pulp & Paper, and against two palm oil companies, Tempirai Palm Resources and Waymusi Agro Indah. Indonesia's president Joko Widodo made an unannounced visit to one burned-out Tempirai concession and threatened the company with withdrawal of its permit, and with criminal investigations.

Other measures have been taken to target companies. Singapore, for example, adopted in August 2014 a bill enabling companies that contribute to the haze to be fined – even if those companies are Indonesian. The main effect of the law could be to make it hard for company officers to visit Singapore, where liability notices might be served on them.

Measures are also being implemented at higher level. For example, in September 2014, Indonesia ratified the 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, brokered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The agreement is mainly aimed at information sharing and monitoring.

The right crackdown?

But is a crackdown on palm oil and pulp companies really the right way to resolve the issues underlying the haze problem? Experts are sceptical. Erik Meijaard of the Borneo Futures Initiative says that large companies that serve international markets “use almost no fire” in managing their concessions.

Instead, it is smallholders and small and medium-sized companies that are likely to slash and burn, says Meijaard. Fires also occur naturally, and the haze that blows across Malaysia and Singapore is also a function of geography and prevailing winds. Indonesia's forest fire problems are moderate compared to other parts of the world, Meijaard says.

Luca Tacconi, professor of environmental governance at the Australian National University, says that peatland fires cause most of the haze. Rather than blaming current management practices, this is to a great extent a consequence of past draining of peatland. Once dry, peat “keeps burning as the fires go underground and become very difficult – almost impossible – to extinguish,” Tacconi says.

Rather than a short-term crackdown on companies, the answer for Indonesia is likely to be a coordinated long-term plan to “rehabilitate degraded peatlands and ban clearing of peatland,” Tacconi says. Meijaard says peatland burning has “almost no function” and can lead to flooding, so it is in the interest of local communities to restore their ecosystems.

Tougher enforcement of the law is undoubtedly required to prosecute those that do set fires. Widodo seems to be making the right commitments on this. But for the longer term, it can be hoped that Indonesia will seize the opportunity offered by the United Nations climate summit in Paris that starts on 30 November. The summit will aim for a global deal to tackle global warming that will be based on national pledges, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

Indonesia's government has said it will cut emissions by 29% by 2030. As peatland and forest burning and clearance contribute the largest proportion of Indonesia's emissions, a robust target and proper plan would seem to be essential.

A version of this article was published on Innovation Forum.

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