Media Interview: The Star, Malaysia

You can read the full article here.

a) How bad would you consider the haze situation in Malaysia now? Has it improved, deteriorated or remained stagnant compared to the last few decades?
At the moment, obviously Malaysia is not suffering from serious haze. But overall, the annual haze has definitely become more severe over the years. Our neighbours, Singapore, experienced their worst haze ever earlier this year when their PSI reached beyond the 400 mark. We also suffered badly this year, although Malaysia has experienced more severe API levels in the past (up to 800 in Kuching during the 1997 episode). But as a whole, the situation is not getting any better.

b) Are the major perpetrators of the haze corporate bodies or subsistence farmers?

The jury is still out on this one. Some research findings may indicate corporations as the major culprit, and others may report subsistence farming. A major reason for this uncertainty is the availability of spatial/mapping data on Indonesia. Clear and official maps, outlining who owns (and is responsible for) what land is not available. Often publicly available maps do not match up with government maps. Indonesia is in the process of developing their ‘One Map Initiative’. Hopefully if this happens, research will be able to use these maps to once and for all determine the actual perpetrators of haze.

But while both small scale farmers and big players may be at fault here, I believe responsibility should be focused on the big players. Most of the farmers burn because they cannot afford mechanical methods – they don’t really have a choice. Commercial plantation companies would be better equipped to absorb these additional costs, which is why I believe these companies should shoulder more responsibility on the matter.

 c) Are Malaysians (or Malaysian companies) involved in the slash & burn practices in Indonesia? If yes, why is it so hard to catch & convict them?

Again, due to the inadequate mapping system in Indonesia, it is very difficult to determine if Malaysian companies are involved activities that lead to fire. Therefore I cannot say for sure if Malaysian companies have or have not been involved in the haze-causing fires, especially in the recent episode. But fire is always a risk in plantations, even if they follow all guidelines. A substantial amount of oil palm plantations in Indonesia are situated on peatland, which is very fire-prone. Even if the plantation companies do not purposely burn, spontaneous fires can occur and it is very important for these plantations to have fire prevention and firefighting mechanisms in place.

If plantations do use fires on purpose, it is certainly hard to catch and convict them. To my knowledge, there are several loopholes in Indonesian regulations that can be used to the advantage of plantation companies. Firstly, even though it is illegal to burn the land, there is no legal restriction to plant on burned land. Therefore, if plantations escape being caught during the burning, no retrospective action can be taken. Hence we hear of plantation companies hiring local villagers to burn land close to their concessions, and letting the fires ‘accidentally’ spread to their land.

Secondly, under Indonesian regulation, companies which were setting the fires have to be caught red-handed, or evidence such as matches and oil jerrycans had to be found at the site of the crime. However, this is difficult to do, because the laws do not allow for police to take action against land burners on the spot or collect evidence in the field. Therefore, some plantation have devised tactics such as burning on weekends or during Friday prayers, so that when police or officials detect fires and approach the company office, no one will be around for confrontation.

d) What has the haze cost us? (Tangible loss – health and economy, intangible loss – quality of life and biodiversity)

I don’t think anyone has done research on the tangible and intangible losses incurred this year due to haze yet. But if you Google this, you should be able to find estimate figures from the 1999 or 2006 episodes. A well-known estimate is WWF’s valuation of the damage of the 1997 fires and haze.

e) What has been done to curb the haze? (Eg. Cloud-seeding, water bombing, Indonesia’s enforcing of environmental laws)

All the above has been done. A quick Google search can give you the answer for this.

f) Why were previous efforts not enough to stop the problem?

The previous efforts, as you mentioned above, have been focused on managing the haze once it occurs, not preventing it. Prevention must involve the changing of the practices of the culprits. And as mentioned above, regardless of who is ‘more’ at fault, it is my opinion that governments should focus on companies, and not slash-and burn farmers. However, efforts to engage with the companies have been very scant.
Several of the more severe haze episodes have cause Malaysian and Singaporean governments to react more sternly, by calling upon Indonesia to release the names of companies involved in fires in Indonesia, vowing that they will not protect any of their companies that are found guilty. However, when Indonesia obliges with names of companies, often these governments take minimal or no action. Usually inquiries are made, but denials by companies are taken at face value.
In response to inquiries, companies will usually just say that they have policies for zero burning in place. Sometimes, top leadership in these companies may be genuinely interested in implementing zero-burning, but the implementation of these policies sometimes do not trickle down to the many individual units all over the country. These companies are huge, with hundreds of hectares of plantation, and so this should not be surprising. And likewise, the bosses at the top may not be fully aware of what is happening at the plantation level. Managers on the ground may be motivated simply by the bottom line. During my research, I spoke to people who shared their experiences of finding, for example, very low budget reports for land clearing which did not match the expenses required for mechanical clearing, and remnants of oil in jerrycans on site. Therefore, it may also be the case of companies not making enough effort to ensure that their policies are being followed through on the ground – perhaps encouraged by the lack of pressure for them to do so by home governments.
g) What are some of the efforts undertaken by neighboring countries to curb the haze?
Again, this can be Googled. But I will discuss one example which underlines my argument of the lack of engagement (by all countries involved) with plantation companies. In 2007, on the invitation of the Indonesian government, Singapore and Malaysia have ‘adopted’ certain fire and haze prone areas in Indonesia. The idea was that these ‘richer’ countries could help these ‘poorer’ districts, both in cash and in kind, to better manage fire issues. But, my research found that most of the projects under the Adopt-A-District plans have been targeted at changing the practices of slash-and-burn farmers, with almost zero involvement or even interest from commercial plantations. Hence, there seems to be a serious lack of willingness to engage with the commercial plantations.
h) What else can Malaysia do to stop future haze occurrences?

In relation to your question F, I believe that Malaysia as the ‘home’ of many plantation firms operating in Indonesia, can do more. In my research, I discuss the close relationships between these companies and their home government. The governments of Malaysia and Singapore often played an important role in facilitating the entry of their companies into the Indonesian plantation sector, through MOUs, trade missions etc. Hence, these home governments should take advantage of these healthy pre-existing relationships to place pressure on corporate boardrooms at home, to encourage these companies to be more responsible over the operations of their units overseas. This approach would be more realistic, as home governments would not be too eager to ‘name and shame’ or truly punish these companies (if they were found to be guilty) which also huge economic contributors to the sector.
On another note, at the recent meeting between Malaysia, Indonesian and Singaporean environment ministers on haze, and the implementation of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze, Malaysia agreed to 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 more clout when engaging with these companies, as the government will be able to make conclusions based on its own investigations. As discussed above, previously, governments could only take the companies’ word of innocence.
However, Malaysia agreed with Indonesia that the availability of these maps should only be on a case-by-case basis, and not made available to the public. Singapore on the other hand was eager to make the maps public. Perhaps Malaysia could join Singapore in pushing to making the maps publicly available. While Malaysia’s reluctance due to legal impediments is legitimate, exceptions should be made for this issue. Reluctance to support the public availability of these maps will only give reasons for doubt to international agencies, NGOs and researchers not privy to these maps.

i) Would you recommend any further preventive legislation?

It is difficult for Malaysia to put into place any preventive legislation for haze, as the brunt of the problem primarily occurs outside Malaysia’s jurisdiction. Only Indonesia has the legal power to prosecute companies or individuals found guilty of haze-producing fires in Indonesia. However, Singapore has been discussing extraterritorial jurisdiction (the ability for Singapore to prosecute Singaporean companies for wrongdoings in other countries) as a preventive measure. Perhaps Malaysia also could consider this as well.

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