Smog returns to Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is again blanketed with a deadly haze as illegal fires burn throughout Indonesia. The annual scourge has been exacerbated, again, by weather patterns that facilitate the burn and make it more difficult to put the fires out. The result is a thick cloud of smog that has descended on neighboring countries, triggering health and diplomatic crises. As in the past, the government in Indonesia seems unable to control the situation. And, as in the past, regional governments seem unable to spur Jakarta to do more.

Fires are set annually in Indonesia during the dry season to clear land for palm oil, and pulp and paper plantations. This method is illegal, but that has rarely slowed farmers and land owners; blazes are set in remote regions, are not done “officially,” and it is often difficult to tell whose land is burning. In other words, establishing responsibility is a difficult, if not impossible, task. And in many cases, the land being burned has peat bogs that can catch fire and then smolder underground for years, unable to be extinguished.

Using fire is a traditional method to clear land, but the smog has become especially difficult during the last two decades. Experts blame rising demand for wood and palm products produced in these areas, as well as changing weather patterns that have made the smog worse. Dry conditions facilitate burning and make it harder to put out fires once they have started. That combination threatens to make this year’s smog the worst ever.

The result has been a surge in respiratory problems across the region, with official readings reaching “hazardous” levels in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. According to official Indonesian statistics, 177,000 people suffered acute respiratory problems in seven provinces. Schools in Malaysia and Singapore have been forced to close. Air transportation has also been disrupted, and tourism is suffering. Experts anticipate that the direct economic cost of the smog this year will exceed the $9 billion in damage that occurred in 1997, the previous worst year on record.

The Indonesian government’s reaction has been mixed. It has not declared a national emergency, but it has mobilized sizable government resources to fight the fires. Over 22,000 people and 125 aircraft have been dispatched to battle the blazes. It is estimated that the government has spent nearly 500 billion rupiah (about $35 million) to fight the problem. At the same time, however, it has turned down offers of assistance from Singapore.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo has ordered action to be taken against “parties responsible for the forest fires.” It is reported that 100 people and as many as 200 companies are or have been investigated for the fires. Unfortunately, many of these properties are owned by individuals with political connections and enforcement of the law has been sporadic at best. Prosecutions have been even harder to come by. The country’s Environment Ministry is reportedly taking legal action against four companies for contributing to the smog.

The most effective tool to date has been the naming and shaming of individuals and corporations responsible for the fires. That task is complicated by the difficulty in identifying who owns specific plots of land: registries are antiquated and scattered. Indonesia has reportedly agreed to turn over the names of companies thought responsible for starting the fires; it has been reluctant to do so in the past. The region’s governments should also be pushing to punish those companies by banning their goods and products. Ironically, several of the polluting companies are palm oil conglomerates headquartered in Singapore and Malaysia.

What is most frustrating about this annual drama is that there is a mechanism to battle this scourge — the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which was signed in 2002. All 10 Association of South East Asian Nations member governments have ratified the agreement; Indonesia was the last to do so. But this agreement languishes, primarily because “the ASEAN way” obliges all ASEAN states to defer to the national prerogatives of the others. There is no way to compel Jakarta to honor its obligations under the agreement, although the impact of the smog on Indonesians should be incentive enough.

The best way to get action to combat the smog is to hit companies responsible on their bottom line. Not just by filing lawsuits, but by boycotting their products. A smart boycott is required, however. There are ways to clear land that do not cause this damage. Governments and consumers should promote sustainable palm oil production techniques, such as those certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body of consumers, green groups, plantation firms and consumer goods companies. Their standards demand that members stop cutting virgin forest, get palm oil only from land to which growers have clear rights, and not clear land with fires.

Twenty percent of the world’s palm oil is certified by the RSPO, and satellite data shows no fires burning on RSPO-certified palm plantations; there are 627 fires burning on plants without certification. Even if the Indonesian government cannot or will not enforce the law, the market can.