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  Straits Times 14 Mar 07
Jakarta making slow progress on haze pact
Commissions to hold separate talks, which may delay ratification
Azhar Ghani, Indonesia Bureau Chief

JAKARTA - INDONESIA looks very unlikely to make much headway towards ratifying the Asean haze agreement despite having taken a step forward recently.

On Monday, the parliamentary approval process resumed after a three- month break, with the government meeting a special committee of legislators that was set up to study the pact further.

During the meeting, Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar reportedly urged the panel to give its approval to the pact. He was quoted by The Jakarta Post as saying: 'Ratifying the agreement will have a more positive impact on Indonesia because trans-boundary haze pollution has affected not only locals and the domestic economy, but also foreign countries. It will also help preserve the environment.

'Otherwise, the government will remain the subject of blame, not only by foreign countries, but also by locals affected by the annual haze pollution.'

Comprising lawmakers from three parliamentary commissions that oversee defence and foreign affairs, agriculture and forestry, and the environment, the committee was proposed when deliberations on the ratification came to a halt last December.

The panel's report will be evaluated and debated by parliamentarians before it is approved.

The Asean anti-haze pact calls for member states to act to prevent and control burning that can pollute neighbouring countries. Signed in 2002, it has been ratified by all the Asean countries except Indonesia and the Philippines.

The haze problem has been a concern in the region after South-east Asia suffered one of its worst haze periods in October and November last year.

Further delay could pose a challenge for Jakarta to pool the much-needed resources to fight forest fires this year, with the dry season set to be much more severe, according to forecasts.

Having come after months of delay in the ratification process that began early last year, the proposal to set up the panel had sparked concerns that parliamentary approval would be further bogged down.

Such a scenario seems to be increasingly likely now, given that the next step would be for the different commissions involved to have their own separate discussions before coming together again.

Also, in the meeting on Monday, several legislators from the commission for defence and foreign affairs signalled that the approval might not go smoothly.

The Jakarta Post said they 'condemned the agreement, which they said placed all responsibility for the haze on Indonesia', and wanted Jakarta to 'ratify the agreement with reservations'.

Dr Sonny Keraf, the deputy chairman of the commission for the environment, told The Straits Times yesterday that he was not confident the ratification would be completed in time for the haze-producing dry season, which kicks in around July.

He noted that the Indonesian Parliament would be due for a month-long recess beginning March 31, adding that the different commissions would need time to hold their own discussions.

Dr Sonny said: 'It is not that we do not want to ratify the pact, as we value it as a symbol of Asean solidarity in handling environmental issues.

'But we would like to see this solidarity extended to addressing other regional environmental issues which affect Indonesia, such as the impact of the past sale of sand to Singapore or Malaysian businessmen profiting from timber logged illegally in Indonesia.'

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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