With fires burning out of control in Indonesia this fall, smog and haze have blanketed much of Southeast Asia. The region knows well the costs involved, and has even come up with a plan to deal with it. Unfortunately, Indonesia, the main offender, has not yet ratified the agreement. Action must be taken to end this annual catastrophe.
Farmers have long used fires to clear land for planting. In parts of Southeast Asia — in Indonesia and Malaysia, in particular — the technique is still popular. But the soil in those two countries is rich in peat, which can absorb heat and burn for a long time — even when there does not appear to be a fire. The result has been a yearly blanket of smog that chokes residents, grounds flights and scares off tourists.
In 1997 and ’98, the smog was the worst in history. Residents in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were forced to stay indoors. Health costs soared and tourists canceled travel plans. The haze was so bad that the Malaysian government forbade publication of air-quality forecasts. The total bill is estimated to have reached $9 billion in lost revenues and higher health-care bills. That episode forced Southeast Asian governments to take the haze threat seriously. They responded with a 2002 agreement on Transboundary Haze, which lays out a multilateral action plan to deal with the problem. Indonesia’s Parliament has not yet ratified the document.
That may change after fires again burned throughout Indonesia this year. Flights have been grounded, the public has been warned to stay indoors, and visibility is low in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest waterways. Two Indonesian vessels reportedly collided as a result of the haze. The situation is severe enough to have forced Southeast Asia’s leaders — normally extremely reticent about public criticism — to demand that Indonesia take action. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologized last month for the haze and agreed to host a regional meeting to tackle forest fires in the country.
In his apology, Mr. Yudhoyono vowed to take action. He promised to deploy police and military units to catch individuals clearing land illegally. Jakarta rented a plane to drop water bombs and sent 1,000 firefighters to affected areas. This is a belated response, the bare minimum that Jakarta should do.
Clearly, Indonesia must ratify the Transboundary Haze agreement. But more importantly, it must be enforced. The use of fires to clear land is already illegal in Indonesia. But the political connections of the large landowners, the isolation of the tracts cleared by smaller farmers, and a blase attitude by local authorities have meant that the law is irrelevant. Even when arrests are made, actual prosecutions are few. That must stop. Additionally, more resources are needed — satellites to find hot spots, aircraft to seed clouds or drop bombs and rapid-response teams to battle blazes on the ground.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency has worked with Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry to improve early-warning and detection systems, support forest fire-prevention activities and provide local training to better manage forests.
That last component is critical: A strategy that responds to fires only after they have been set is insufficient. Prevention is also needed. That means educating farmers about the law and about alternative ways to clear land. It means creating better irrigation systems that can help dampen the peat, prevent it from catching fire, or contain fires when they do start. It also means coming up with more sustainable ways to utilize forest resources. One project combines two goals: It builds new irrigation systems and uses them for acquaculture, raising shrimp and other marine products that can be used to support local livelihoods.
Solving the haze problem will take time. The difficulties identified above are compounded by a simple fact of life: Regional governments have other priorities. The government in Jakarta is also tackling bird flu, natural disasters, separatist movements, and other more direct security threats such as piracy and terrorist movements. It is difficult to put haze, which is intimately tied to the survival of the country’s farmers, at the top of its list of action items.
The haze problem underscores the need for regional cooperation in handling these problems. Indonesia’s neighbors, along with other concerned nations, have indicated their readiness to help. But the primary burden falls on Indonesia: Jakarta must demonstrate its willingness to get serious about the fight against haze. Then other governments can join that fight. They can be partners — but they should not substitute for Jakarta’s own commitment to reduce and eventually eliminate the smog that chokes Southeast Asia.
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