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  Today Online 19 Oct 06
Waiting for clear days
South-east Asians must act on the haze problem and not wait for govts to do something
Ooi Giok Ling

COMPARISONS are being made between the haze situation in 1997 and the one now enveloping parts of the region because of the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

These comparisons explain the milder haze condition this time around compared to that seen in 1997 when the dry El Nino weather aggravated the situation.

Still other comparisons reflect on the decade that has passed with both the Indonesian state and the governments in the region scrambling, yet again, to address the forest fires and the haze problem.

In the interim years, environment ministers have come and gone, and a few of the environmental and economic non-governmental organisation (NGO) activists then have since assumed high-level government appointments.

The haze this time around does seem to suggest that Indonesia and its people have yet to get their act together.

In the Asean report to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, the 1997-98 haze cost the region US$9 billion ($14 billion). It damaged nine million hectares of land in Indonesia and adversely affected 70 million people.

In short, the haze problem is the tip of the iceberg as far as other attendant problems are involved. Haze leads to lost revenue from tourism for the region, as well as to disruption in economic activities and people's everyday lives. It is bad for health in every sense of the word, from the air pollution to repercussions such as the prevention of outdoor sports activities.

The haze spells environmental degradation on a mind-boggling scale not only because of the forests that are burning, but above all, the negative image created of the ability of the region's citizens to address this recurrent problem and protect its natural wealth together.

The region needs all to subscribe to citizenship at the national and regional level, if we are to build the capacity for cooperation needed to tackle the issue of fires being started to clear land for farms and plantations in Indonesia.

Right now, citizens are displaying more the South-east Asian capacity to wait for their governments or others to do something.

Citizens urgently need to reflect on the value of nature and a good environmental quality to us in the region.

Then we have to build, in cooperation, the capacity to protect nature and the channels and institutions that can mediate the conflicts that will arise with other citizens who see nature as a land bank, or resources for exploitation regardless of the costs to others.

The recurrence of the regional haze belies the consciousness that South-east Asians share for the sufferings of fellow regional citizens.

This was the consciousness that South-east Asians displayed in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, when all jumped to the aid of those affected. It would be most ironic to think that such sufferings of fellow Southeast Asians might not have been communicated to the perpetrators, given the isolation of the areas on fire.

After all, there have been reports that many people living along coastal areas in Indonesia that are vulnerable to tsunamis, might still not know the warning signs. For many of us living in cities with access to handphones and cable TV, it is almost unimaginable that the Indonesian government has yet to get information about the warning signs out to them.

Many of those starting the fires might also be thinking that each is only responsible for a small fire.

This would be rather like the urban folk who have told me that, individually, they think there is really nothing much they can do about the environment including each consuming less electricity or water because it would count for relatively little against what others are consuming on the whole.

Persistence of the regional haze problem is a concern in the long term, because it does not reflect well on citizens' awareness of the environmental impact of our actions. In a region where the population and economic activities remain largely rural and, hence, still dependent on nature to some degree climate, weather conditions, fertile soils, seasonality of rains and such the role of nature needs to be considered far more seriously.

Building a new consciousness of the importance of nature would be among the steps that have to be taken by citizens.

It would be a crucial one towards developing the vital capacity for cooperation among South-east Asians to address the regional haze.

The writer is a Professor of Humanities and Social Studies Education at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed are her own.

She and her colleagues are organising the conference on Sustainability and South-east Asia Thinking and Acting for our Common Future from Nov 28 to 30.

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NIE-SEAGA Conference 2006
Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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