Clearing the Haze: Summary and where we are right now

“Clearing the Haze” is a feature series by The Online Citizen that brings you into the core of the trans-boundary haze issue. Our reporting team joined volunteers from local haze monitoring group, PM. Haze, on one of their field trips into the heart of Indonesia earlier this year to find out more about the haze situation, what causes the fires, and what can be done about it.

By Terry Xu and Yasmeen Banu

Last year, Singapore saw its worse case of haze with a never-before 401 PSI reading. The haze was caused by the forest fires from the nearby Indonesian islands just south of Singapore. Due to wind movement, the particles from the fires drifted towards our island and presented a worrying health hazard to residents.

Singapore was left helpless as the haze engulfed the island and people scrambled to purchase face masks and air filters for themselves and their loved ones. Some merchants took the opportunity to jack up the price of face masks, which were flying off the shelves, to profit from the man-made environmental crisis.

The Singapore Armed Forces activated to help distribute masks to residents (Image - Cyberpioneer)
The Singapore Armed Forces activated to help distribute masks to residents (Image from Cyberpioneer)

Many criticised the Singapore government for the delay in response when the haze was developing, whereupon the Singapore government took a few days to distribute face masks for citizens.

The problem, however, is not Singapore’s alone.

Between 2000 and 2012, Indonesia lost more than six million hectares of its natural forest, a study published in Nature Climate Change revealed. It wasn’t the first time that Indonesia has attracted international attention, but it certainly warranted urgency to the situation.

The haze, a yearly occurrence since 1997, has sparked a domino effect of non-profit organization’s (NGO’s) from Indonesia stepping up their efforts to call for more focused monitoring and strong governance on plantations. 1997 was the year where Indonesia was hit the hardest by haze. The wounds remain fresh from what The Jakarta Post described as the year that “marked the worst man-made disaster before the current situation”.

ASEAN nations have since developed and ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002 to reduce haze pollution in Southeast Asia. The agreement recognises that trans-boundary haze pollution which results from land and/or forest fires should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and international cooperation.

However, this agreement has been accused of being vague and lacking enforcement mechanisms or strong instruments for dispute-resolution by any parties. Currently, Indonesia has yet to ratify the agreement.

The Singapore Parliament has just passed a Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill that will fine convicted companies which has a part in the fires happening overseas that will eventually affect the air quality in Singapore. Companies which have been found guilty will be fined not exceeding S$100,000 every day that there is haze pollution in Singapore, with a cap of S$2 million.

Many parliamentarians have voiced their concern about whether such a bill can deter companies from engaging in slash and burn methods to clear their land, or whether is it possible to pinpoint the culprits for fires started outside of Singapore’s sovereign territories.

Some parliamentarians have also voiced their worry of the cap of S$2 million dollars, an arguably derisory sum to be even considered as a detriment for the mega multinational companies running the plantations.

After all, after decades of supposed negotiation and discussions between ASEAN countries, the issue of forest fires in Indonesia has not seen improvement. Throughout the years, Singapore has been unaware of the destruction of the Indonesian forest until the wind brought the haze to us in 2013, reminding us of this environmental issue in our neighbouring country.

And the fact that a leading pulp and paper manufacturer in Asia, APRIL – a company that has been accused of being a major contributor to the trans-boundary haze, with its president qualifying that “Indonesia’s land use is a very complex land use, overlapping issues are there, community disputes are there” – has applauded the Bill, might give us a signal that our efforts might be a few degrees short of getting the desired results.

As the Singapore government considers solving the haze pollution issue with financial deterrence, we might want to consider what we can really do about the situation in Indonesia in more proactive ways.

Can we pinpoint the culprit? Or is it a complicated situation contributed by a plethora of political, geographical, regional, and communication issues?

Are the culprits local villagers, whom many think are the prime suspects for the fires, or are the culprits profit driving multi-national companies setting the land on fire to save cost and speed up the process of preparing the land for crop cultivation?

How can the culprits be deterred from burning, and what other solutions can they explore?

What and Singaporeans and the Singapore government do to help the Indonesians resolve the haze and forest fire issues? Do Indonesians really want to set their forest on fires and do nothing about it, or is there something more complex about the whole issue?

These are questions which we tried to get answers to. TOC accompanied a group of volunteers to Riau, Indonesia to find out more about the situation on the ground, to see for ourselves and listen to the people themselves about the happenings on ground.

TOC’s “Clearing the Haze” series includes:

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