15th Meeting of the ASEAN Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Haze

The Southeast Asian sub-region of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia suffered what was to be the worst ever recorded transboundary haze event in July, with areas in Singapore and Malaysia reaching beyond 400 PSI. The event once again brought national and international attention to the possible complicity of local and foreign oil palm plantations in these fires, which largely originated from the Indonesian island of Sumatera. Plantation companies are often accused of intentionally setting certain parts of their concessions on fire, as a cheap way to clear land in preparation of planting. These fires, especially when located on peat, release thick sooty smoke that often travel across boundaries which result in transboundary haze.

In response to urgent requests from Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia released the names of eight local and foreign plantation companies which were suspected to have been involved in the fires, including five RSPO members (Indonesia’s Jatim Jaya Perkasa, Malaysia’s Tabung Haji Plantations, Kuala Lumpur Kepong and Sime Darby, and Singapore-based Indonesian company Sinar Mas).  RSPO membership commits these companies to observe fire avoidance in all plantation activities. Subsequent investigations by RSPO cleared four of these companies from blame, but Jatim Jaya Perkasa remain unwilling to cooperate.

The difficulty of accurately assigning blame or responsibility on these companies stem from a long-standing problem of land mapping in the country. This was a hot topic at the meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on haze, which was held in Kuala Lumpur from the 15th to the 17th of July. The meeting, originally scheduled for October, was brought forward to July on the request of the host.

Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan strongly advocated making digitized land-use and concession maps publicly available. However, this was opposed by both Indonesia and Malaysia, with Indonesia arguing that the maps cannot be released due to the country’s Freedom of Information Law (of which Indonesia refused to make exemptions, even though the government is empowered to do so) while Malaysia citing a possible breach of confidentiality rules. One reason of Indonesia’s reluctance may be due to the discrepancies between its own maps, a point that has been highlighted groups like the World Resources Institute. The meeting thus settled for sharing of the maps at a government-to-government level upon request, but this remains subject to approval from leadership.

This outcome was seen by many as counterproductive, as such secrecy would only protect culprits, by obscuring who owns the burning lands. It will furthermore increase reputational risk of firms, as they will continue to be viewed with suspicion. On the contrary, freely available maps would promote public accountability among firms and allow stakeholders to name and shame any offenders. Indonesia’s lack of political will in this direction will also dampen the urgency of streamlining Indonesia’s spatial mapping system. Without freely-available and accurate mapping data, it would be difficult for Indonesia and neighbouring countries to take action on their firms. This is especially disappointing for Singapore, who has begun to explore extra-territorial laws to take their errant companies to task. Dr Balakrishnan’s disappointment was palpable, as he commented on the ‘slow progress’ of the meeting.

Apart from this, the Indonesian Environment Minister Balthazar Kambuaya also placed a tentative target for Indonesian ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution by early 2014, dependent on Parliamentary agreement. Indonesia is the only remaining ASEAN member country yet to sign the agreement. However, the last time that the pact went up for ratification, in 2008, it was strongly rejected by MPs. Therefore, there is only a slight possibility that the outcome will be any different this year. Among the reasons of rejection in 2008 was that MPs 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. Furthermore, 2014 is Indonesia’s election year, where issues of sovereignty and access to national resources many be rekindled among certain quarters.

The haze has been slowly making its return on Malaysian and Singaporean shores in the past weeks. Although the slightly wetter season is holding the full force of it at bay, oil palm plantations will continue to be viewed with suspicion at any return of serious haze. While this sector continues to be a hot button topic for Indonesia given its tremendous contribution to the economy and employment, rejuvenated cooperation by Indonesia at the ASEAN level in haze mitigation can only improve the sector’s standing in the region and in the world.

References

 Varkkey, H., 2013. Regional Cooperation, Patronage, and the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics.

Newspaper articles, official ASEAN website, and commentaries by various stakeholder organizations

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