Opinion Piece in Malaysian Insider

An opinion piece that I wrote about the current (September 2015) haze episode was published in the Malaysian Insider, entitled “In a sorry state over the haze”. You can read the piece here.

–Update–

Malaysian Insider has recently ceased operations. Here is the full text of the article:

In a sorry state over the haze – Helena Varkkey
Published: 11 September 2015 10:30 AM

President Joko Widodo is currently facing his first serious transboundary haze episode since assuming office in October 2014.

Many in the region are watching with interest on how Indonesia’s new premier engages with this long-running regional problem.

The former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono grappled with haze and its related diplomatic tensions throughout the entirety of his presidency. Haze episodes, which can affect certain parts of Indonesia and Malaysia and the entirety of Singapore, often give rise to heated but diplomatic exchanges between the three countries.

SBY’s response towards the haze shifted from a defensive stance during his early years as premier to a more contrite demeanour towards the end of his tenure.

One of his most significant acts while in office was declaring and extending, in 2011 and 2013 respectively, a moratorium on the issuance of new conversion permits for primary forests and peatlands, to allow time for the establishment of a national forestry database to better manage Indonesia’s forests.
Before stepping down, SBY also gave a speech singling out the haze as an issue that he hoped his successor would continue to seriously work on.

Indeed, one of current president Jokowi’s early acts in office was to extend SBY’s forest moratorium for a second time. However, despite this positive start, the region is again faced with choking haze. With Jokowi coming to power on pledges for a new era of change, have things changed at all?

On environmental and haze matters, Jokowi’s administration seems to have set off on a good footing. One of Jokowi’s closest advisors is Alexander Sonny Keraf, a former Indonesian minister of the environment. Pak Sonny was head of the delegation to Asean during the formative period of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, and one of the strongest advocates for its ratification at home.

On the other hand, Jokowi’s tenure oversaw the merger of the Ministry of Forestry and Ministry of Environment, to form the monolithic Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Before the merger, the Environment Ministry was in effect a “junior ministry” with limited influence over other ministries. When merged with the more powerful Forestry Ministry, legitimate apprehensions arise of environmental concerns being stifled by the more developmental-minded Forestry bureaucrats.

However, bureaucracy aside, Jokowi himself at least seems to be holding up his part of the haze bargain. The president visited ground zero in South Sumatra last Sunday, almost immediately after receiving reports of fires and haze in the area. An apology to Indonesia’s neighbours quickly followed.

Jokowi also had some choice words to say about the situation: “I no longer want to talk about the cause of the problem or what is the solution. Everyone knows what needs to be done.” He also singled out the police and forestry minister to get tough on companies who break land use and burning laws, and to revoke company licences if necessary.

While this could easily be dismissed as shallow rhetoric from an embarrassed leader, it is in fact a powerful statement.

The Indonesian president effectively shut down the protracted back-and-forth between those who defend pulp and paper and plantation companies and instead blame local communities for haze-producing fires, and those who insist that companies are the biggest offenders.

By calling an end to the debate on the cause and the solution, Jokowi has effectively set the parameters of haze mitigation during his presidency: haze is mainly caused by concessionaires who either deliberately use fire to prepare land for planting, or inadvertently encourage fires by opening up fire-prone land, like peatland.

The solution lies in ensuring that licences are given out within the strict land use guidelines that already exist, and that companies also follow all related land use laws after licences have been given out.

Of course, this may be easier said than done. Large local and foreign (mostly Malaysian and Singaporean) concessionaires are often well-connected to corrupt central and local administrators, enabling them to gain access to forbidden lands and to get away with fires. It is telling that despite all the years of haze, only a handful of companies have ever been brought to court for fire-related charges.

Furthermore, the moratorium that is in place does not work retrospectively, which means that licences that have been given out prior to 2011 are still legitimate. Many of these companies which secured licences before the 2011 moratorium are still in the process of opening up their lands.

One of Jokowi’s promises that won him the national election was that he would embody a “new leadership style” which includes fighting corruption, rather than supporting the institutions that allow corruption to persist. Tackling the institutions that foster corruption in the (mis)management of Indonesia’s forests would be good place to start. – September 11, 2015.

* Helena Varkkey reads The Malaysian Insider.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

You may be able to access a cached copy here.

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