Media Interview: The Straits Times, Singapore

1) How would you assess the outcome of the ASEAN Ministers Meeting in Kuala Lumpur today? How much of a breakthrough – or not – was it, especially on sharing concession maps on a govt to govt level? 

I would say the outcome of the meeting was good, but not great. Two things were markedly different from previous meetings, the first is the candid manner in which plantation company involvement was discussed, and the second was on the possible government-to-government sharing of concession maps.
These two breakthroughs can be seen as moderately positive in the efforts to better manage haze in the region. All three countries are now more open about the possibility of their companies implicated in the fires, and are no longer trying to wholly shift blame to forest-dwelling smallholders that can hardly be held accountable for their actions. The onus of proving innocence have thus shifted to the plantation companies. This should serve as an important indicator to plantation companies that governments are taking the role of agribusiness in the haze problem much more seriously, and hence spur these companies to also step up fire prevention and monitoring on their lands.

As for the government-to-government sharing of concession maps, this is indeed a step in the right direction, because governments will now be better informed of the activities of their companies in Indonesia. This will give Malaysia and Singapore more clout when engaging with these companies, as they will be able to make conclusions based on governmental own investigations. Previously, governments could only take the companies’ word of innocence.
However, the availability of these maps on a case-by-case basis, and the reluctance of Indonesia to make them available to the public is disappointing. This reluctance could mean that Indonesia, despite all these years, still does not have accurate spatial mapping systems that are fit to be released at once. Or it could indicate a more sinister reluctance to release them due to concerns of private interests. If it was the first case, this could set the agenda for prioritizing ASEAN cooperation – urgent assistance on mapping. While Indonesia’s explanation that the public release of these maps would have legal implications is legitimate, it would be in Indonesia’s interest to make a parliamentary exception for these cases, if it is truly serious about solving the problem. Continued reluctance to make these maps public will only give reasons for doubt to international agencies, NGOs and researchers not privy to these maps.
As for Indonesia’s commitment to ratification on the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, this has been given time and time again. I do not see why this round of commitment would be any different than previous ones (which did not result in ratification), because the mechanics of ratification in Indonesia remain the same. Ratification still must go through parliament, and largely the same parliamentarians and parties are in the position to raise objections. Previous rounds of parliamentary debates have failed because (among other reasons) certain parliamentarians were worried that additional requirements would be imposed on Indonesia post-ratification, which may damage Indonesia’s strategic interests as the world’s largest producer of palm oil.
2) In your view, how likely is it that even if with these maps, the evidence is gathered for enforcement action, this will be followed-up with decisive or deterrent measures to initiate action against companies found culpable?  

This will all depend on Indonesia’s political will. In the past, very rarely have companies been successfully prosecuted, despite culpable evidence. My research and research by others have suggested that this is because of the strong patronage connections extant between these plantation companies and government officials. Hence, officials are often not eager to punish these companies.
However, the unprecedented severity of the haze this year, coupled with the high media exposure and risk of backlash from international palm oil markets may make it necessary for at least a few of these companies to be punished (if found guilty with due process), as a warning to future offenders and as a sign that the Indonesian government is doing its job.
3) Given the constraints of sovereignty and the so-called “Asean way”, is what the meeting agreed on the best that can be achieved? What else would you have wished to see?

In a way, yes, this is a good outcome given the constraints. Especially notable was the agreement to share the concession maps on a government-to-government basis. Indonesia in the past have been extremely reluctant to share any spatial information with its neighbours, due to security concerns. And this, alongside finger-pointing, was regarded an ‘untouchable’ subject due to the non-interference norm. So this meeting is indeed a healthy step forward, in the sense that effective transboundary environmental cooperation can still move forward (albeit slowly) within the limitations of the ASEAN Way.
I would however have liked to have seen a more stern response from other countries on Indonesia’s continued non-ratification. The other ministers seem to have infinite patience with Indonesia. Indonesia’s non-ratification places ASEAN efforts over the haze in a bit of a limbo. It complicates the procedure of sending in assistance from neighbouring countries, and continues to delay the establishment of the ASEAN Coordination Centre for Haze (which was supposed to be in Riau), among others.
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