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Rethinking the haze and Indonesia

By Vernon Chan

Tiny and rich Singapore flails comically when it comes to Indonesia and the haze. For all its claims of being a diplomatic giant on the world stage, Singapore fumed helplessly for the last two months as forests and peatland burned in Borneo and Sumatra.

It's a smog that gives Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong a run for their money. A smog that's more lo-fi, yet more poisonous. And according to both locals and expats, a smog that has more immediate effects on health. More importantly, Singapore's credibility as a vibrant cosmopolitan city and productive financial centre withers each day the haze lingers over its skyline.

Why, if this were an annual occurrence, would anyone flock to Singapore? What would it have left to offer to expats fleeing the smog of Chinese cities? And yet this is an annual occurrence - one that typically lasts for a week or two, and not to this extent.

It is folly to think that the problem has gone away because the smog isn't blowing in the direction of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, or the Philippines for the moment. We are not even in the post-haze season. And we will not be rid of the haze, not for a very long timeassurances from Indonesian president Widodo notwithstanding. And we will not be rid of the haze until we truly understand why the forests and peatlands are burning in Borneo.

When there's a will, there's a way; or Motives, means, and opportunities

Reportage of the haze in Singapore is clouded by the island-state's technocratic sensibilities. Commenters invariably declare the annual problem to be one of enforcement of laws, clarity in legal ownership of forest holdings, and industry practices. The blinkered Singaporean's litany goes: "If only the laws were better crafted and regulators more active... If only the OneMap project can finally go ahead and bring transparency to the mess of land ownership... If only the industry could regulate itself and adopt best practices..."

Instead, an organisational anthropologist would take a look at the mess and see a Bourdieuan system of indeterminate but mutually reinforcing legal, cultural, and industrial structures which predispose and incentivise actors to internalise as common sense the annual burning of forests and peatland.

It is not that the laws, its regulators, the regulatory structures, etc. are somehow inadequate and insufficient in preventing actors from burning down half of Borneo and Sumatra every year; it is that the laws, etc. are in themselves encouraging actors to deliberately burn forests and peatland.

Our narrative begins with the motive. With the motive, every structure and action becomes clear.

In 2013, Indonesia announced a target to double its oil palm production by 2020. Palm oil is worth, at the moment, 19 per cent of total Indonesian exports. That target has not been repudiated. "Technocrat" Joko Widodo's plan to transition Indonesia's forestry sector from timber to palm oil (a post-Suharto phenomenon) is far more concrete than his climate plan to reduce deforestation and curb the haze, and far more likely to succeed.

Sure, there has been some world grumbling about Indonesia's wanton deforestation and outright burning. The EU is subsidising Indonesia $1 billion for 4-year moratorium; Indonesia itself subsidises the forestry industry to the tune of $10 billion.

Indonesia's palm oil and forestry production targets provide the motive for having a structure of forestry laws and regulatory efforts that afford actors sufficient loopholes to continue annual burning despite technical illegality.

Lack of clarity in concession ownership, overlapping ownership, and outright selling the same tracts of land to different contractors and middlemen provide the means to burn and develop forest and peatland. Nobody gets the blame and nobody gets prosecuted if everyone points the finger at everyone else. I predict the OneMap initiative will remain in doldrums precisely because of this.

Who owns the land and the palm oil products? If everyone has competing and overlapping claims, then it's just a matter of who is available to take the bribe when the time comes, and whether there's a network of illegal refineries anyway in the vast jungles of Borneo. There's more than enough money for everyone. And if you're so virtuous as to keep part of your obtained national reserves concession undeveloped? The ministry of forestry takes it back... and sells it to someone else!

The opportunity. No, not El Nino. Not even the northwest monsoon. The opportunity lies in the draining of peatland. In the face of increased surface legal constraints to burning, the solution is to engineer it such that as much forest can go up into flames with as little deliberate or spontaneous burning.

A new solution?

The haze is here to stay. The haze will get worse. Indonesia's current national economic development plan is the root of the haze problem. Proposed solutions thrown up in Singapore like better engineering, joint haze emergency task forces, and crafting ASEAN-wide climate change statements are an irrelevant distraction at best, destined to be publicly and pointedly ignored and laughed off by Indonesia's administrators at worst.

Diplomacy is a no-go: there is no way, on a government to government level, to tell off a country's leaders and administrators for creating legal and economic structures that encourage mass illegality to achieve economic development. The Singapore government subtly encourages civil society groups to take up "consumer action" precisely because it cannot be seen to be involved in a much-needed global chastisement of Indonesia.

A consumer boycott will be more effective especially given that changing national development policy is not in the realm of possible options in regional diplomacy.

1. The RSPO is a joke and not credible, and should be in the sights of the boycott;
2. Identify the haze as a result of a deliberate, long-standing industrial policy;
3. Emphasise the scale of the forestry industry;
4. Emphasise the sense of scale geographically (imagine if all of Texas and SoCal were on fire, and the smoke covered also Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico!);
5. Compare the large scale haze to industrial dumping, toxic waste from large scale, industrial development

An international consumer boycott would ask: why would a country mandate and sanction industrial scale development of its forests and peatland, and do nothing to control the toxic waste it generates, in effect dumping the waste across international borders to other countries?

An effective international consumer boycott targeting the entire palm oil export sector of Indonesia may well bring the runaway forestry sector to its knees, largely because the legal, regulatory, and industrial structures that keep it in place also serve to create a highly inefficient sector. Only then will the world see genuine and sincere efforts to stop the burning of Borneo and Sumatra.