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  Business Times 17 May 07
Smoking out answer to burning question
To combat forest fires, Asean must present a more compelling case to global bodies and get assured long-term funding
By Laurel Teo, Jakarta Correspondent

Today Online 17 May 07
Back to the burning issue
Simon Tay

DARK clouds are gathering as the dry season begins in Indonesia. Prospects increase that fires and haze will again return to plague the region later this year.

This alarming prediction is the consensus among experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and officials that emerged at a recent workshop in Jakarta.

This likely recurrence of the fires and haze is disconcerting. The problem has persisted for more than a decade and Asean's Agreement on the Transboundary is now in force. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised and promised action to address the problem.

While the dry season is a natural factor, analysts agree that human action, corporations and government policy in land clearing are factors that can be controlled.

Does the predicted haze mean nothing has been done? Does Indonesia still lack the political will to deal with the problem? Are there potential solutions ahead?

Conflicting signals emerged from the workshop, organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs with two Indonesian partners the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the World Wide Fund (WWF) Indonesia.

Some sectors in Indonesia have signalled that the government will not ratify the Haze Agreement. At the workshop, the Indonesian Minister of Forestry asked for regional assistance on illegal logging in consideration for supporting the Haze Agreement.

Some Indonesian Members of Parliament wish to make it a precondition that Singapore and Malaysia help not only on illegal logging, but also in other areas such as anti-corruption and extradition, for which a treaty has now been concluded with Singapore.

While these claims have been loudest, the recent workshop notably gave space to other voices from Indonesia.

All the NGOs present, including the Indonesia Forum for the Environment, or Walhi, and WWF- Indonesia wish to address the haze issue. Similarly, local and provincial officials working in the fire-prone regions of Riau and Kalimantan detailed their efforts to prevent the fires, and to put them out speedily if they start.

Taking a similar view, officials from the Indonesian Ministry for the Environment gave their assurance at the workshop that Indonesia would do its best under its national plan to deliver on President Susilo's promise, with or without the Agreement.

These views among NGOs, local officials and the Ministry for the Environment give some cause for optimism about efforts to address the fires and haze in contrast to the statements by the Minister for Forestry and some MPs.

There is increasing recognition that the fire and haze primarily affect Indonesia, and are therefore issues the country must address for its own good and for the good of its citizens.

The effects on neighbouring states are, in this perspective, important but secondary.

The negative impacts of the fires and haze on Indonesia's public health and economy are well documented and costs are estimated to run into billions of dollars.

But even more than these estimates, the attitude of the NGOs and local officials is based on their real-life experiences, close to the ground. These NGOs have projects in fire-prone areas and work directly with the victims of the fires and the thickest haze.

Similarly, local officials in these fire-prone areas see the catastrophe up close. In contrast, some policy-makers who sit in Jakarta know little or nothing of the haze as a first-hand problem.

One area of contention remains the identity of the primary culprits.

Indonesian NGOs allege that the fires and haze stem mainly from lands owned by some of the large plantation companies. Others including some officials and corporate spokesmen put the blame on the smaller-scale, traditional farmers.

There are also differences in opinion on what can be done to address the issue.

It is possible that with the push from local officials, NGOs, and the Environment Ministry, momentum can gather for Indonesia to redouble its efforts and also ratify the Haze Agreement.

But even supporters of the Agreement acknowledge that while it is an important marker and useful mechanism, it is no panacea.

Regional support will be needed. Singapore, Malaysia and other neighbours have agreed, under the Asean agreement, to put seed money into the Haze Control Fund. The presence of Singaporean and Malaysian NGOs at the workshop alongside their Indonesian counterparts showed the support for such cooperation, at a people-to-people level.

Hopefully, governments will follow suit to increase cooperation.

This seed of cooperation and support must be grown, as Indonesia would need more resources as it starts to put its anti-haze plans into action.

More ways forward were identified at the workshop. One of them will be efforts to retain and replant forests and the conservation of peatlands, which are the worst producers of haze. Such projects would address not just the regional haze but also climate-change concerns at the global level.

An opportunity to link with climate change will arise with Indonesia hosting the conference of parties meeting of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of the year.

Efforts to encourage Indonesia to address the haze must continue, and new initiatives must be explored and pursued, even as we should brace ourselves for another season of burnt earth and grey skies.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a non-government think-tank. What is your view? Email us at news@newstoday.com.sg.

Business Times 17 May 07
Smoking out answer to burning question
To combat forest fires, Asean must present a more compelling case to global bodies and get assured long-term funding
By Laurel Teo, Jakarta Correspondent

THE answer is money.

The questions? It depends, but they all centre on the forest fires that rage across certain Indonesian provinces in the dry season each year.

Why do they happen? Why can't they be stopped? And what is the solution to the endemic air pollution that chokes neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia?

When it comes to the perennial haze problem, a staggering number of players - countries, ministries, NGOs, companies, village officials and farmers - are intertwined at multiple levels in multiple issues.

Trying to unsnarl the sticky mess is more than a little tricky.

No one could have summed up the task more piquantly than World Wide Fund for Nature official Mubariq Ahmad. At a seminar in Jakarta last week organised by two think-tanks, he encapsulated the haze conundrum into the three questions - and the one answer - here set out.

Haze happens because impoverished farmers (out of desperation) and misbehaving companies (out of greed) clear land in the fastest and cheapest way - by burning.

Putting out the fires is expensive, and the state doesn't always have the funds.

Matters are further complicated by the money that changes hands between errant companies and the people who would otherwise be prosecutors.

To persuade farmers to stop burning, education isn't enough. They need incentives, and they need to be offered viable alternatives.

As another seminar participant said plainly: 'You can't just tell them - look, it's no good to burn. You have to give them another way to put food on the table.'

The Indonesian government, too, needs money - 585 billion rupiah or S$100 million just this year alone for fire fighting and haze prevention. In that context, the US$500,000 seed money that Asean countries are putting into the Transboundary Haze Pollution Control Fund seems paltry.

'Peanuts,' as one Malaysian participant declared bluntly at the same seminar.

But long-suffering Asean secretariat officials countered that it was a start, nonetheless.

Besides, the sum did not factor in costs that countries like Malaysia and Singapore were already bearing in bilateral efforts to combat haze, they added.

Singapore, for instance, has been supplying weather-outlook information, satellite images and maps of hotspots. It has also 'adopted' Jambi province on Sumatra island, under a new strategy to pair-up fire-prone areas with donor countries or agencies, so that the efforts can be more concentrated and effective.

Malaysia, too, is doing its bit by running fire-management programmes and 'zero-burning' workshops. Such practical, on-the-ground actions are helping to put the focus on what can be done rather than what hasn't been done.

For too long, perhaps, the regional community has been wringing its hands over Indonesia's reluctance to ratify the Asean haze agreement.

Signed five years ago, the anti-haze pact calls for member states to act to prevent and control burning that can pollute neighbouring countries. It has since been ratified by all the Asean countries except Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia's case, the pact has been mired in long and tedious parliamentary processes.

Given that a special committee to study the pact has convened just last month, it is unlikely the agreement will reach the country's House of Representatives for deliberation, much less ratification, for quite some time.

The agreement, in fact, was the starting point of last week's seminar co-organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

But as the discussion progressed, the question flipped from why the pact had yet to be ratified, to whether it was even necessary.

As one official from Riau province challenged, with or without the pact, Indonesia was already going ahead with preventive and fire-fighting programmes. Plus, the pact appears to lack teeth, given that signatories are not bound by anything other than their word to abide by the terms. There are no penalties set out, and no mandatory enforcement.

The underlying question, in short, was what could be gained from Indonesia's acquiescence, beyond a symbolic show of unity that Asean can present to the world.

One panellist from the Asean secretariat's environment and disaster management unit profferred a more pragmatic answer that went back to the question of money.

As world crises go, the haze still ranks rather low on the priority list of international bodies like the UN.

But with a united front, Asean can present a more credible and compelling case for these bodies to sit up, take notice, and pay up. 'We have been getting some international support on a project basis. But it's not sufficient. We need more substantial, assured funding over the long term,' he said.

That could just do the trick for Indonesian parliamentarians.

Related articles on Singapore: haze
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