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- When did the haze begin to become an annual occurrence, and what are the causes behind it?
Southeast Asia has been experiencing almost annual haze since 1982. Level of severity varies according to the El-Nino season; El-Nino years (eg. this year) are drier and thus this is when we see more severe haze. During the early years, the haze was normally attributed to villagers in various parts of Indonesia (and to a lesser extent Malaysia) practising swidden agriculture, specifically slashing and burning different parts of the forest to make way for new crops as they go along. However, as time went by, more and more of the haze has been attributed to commercial plantations, especially oil palm and to a certain extent pulp and paper. A key contributor are plantations opening up on peatlands. Even though peatlands are protected lands, demand for land and also other factors (like the lack of villagers living here) has encouraged (usually illegal) opening of these lands. Peatlands are highly fire prone when dried out in preparation for planting. When burned, it produces the thick, black, and heavy smoke that easily travel across state boundaries. And these fires are notoriously hard to put out, as they burn underground.
- What has been achieved so far by the Malaysian and Indonesian government in managing the haze?
Sadly, nothing much. Haze has only become more severe as the years go by. Both governments continue to call for stricter enforcement of zero-burning and controlled burning laws, however they are continually being flouted. Indonesia has brought several individuals and companies to court for illegal burning, and successfully sentenced them, but this is a very small proportion of the total wrongdoers. Otherwise, both countries usually respond to haze in a very reactive manner. Firefighters and aircraft are deployed only after fires are detected, and not much, if any, preventive actions are taken before the burning season. The government (and people) seem to forget haze as soon as the sky is clear – out of sight out of mind.
- Why is the haze problem still unresolved? And what can Malaysia do to solve it?
The haze problem persists simply because of the lack of enforcement. Both countries have rather strong laws governing clearing of land. However, companies especially are able to get away with flouting them. This is because there are often close patronage relations between companies and the governing bodies. Individuals from these companies are often connected to government elite either through genuine friendships or reciprocal relations built through election funding or other political contributions. These close relationships allow (1) companies to gain (by right illegal) access to peatlands, and (2) to get away with burning if and when it happens. Sometimes policemen purposely delay investigations so that evidence can be cleared, and often even if cases are brought to court, they are dropped with no explanation. For such cases in Indonesia, there is nothing much that Malaysia can do to solve this enforcement issue. However, the Malaysian government can play a stronger role in pressuring Malaysian plantation companies operating in Indonesia to adhere to laws, and possibly even holding them responsible for their actions in Malaysian courts, even though the wrongdoings occurred in Indonesia. Singapore is trying out such a law, and this mechanisms will be something to watch for Malaysia.
- Do you believe there is an end in sight, or will we be facing the haze for many years to come?
If the enforcement problems mentioned above are not addressed, and if patronage relations continue to reign supreme over laws and regulations, there is little hope to end the years of haze. Instead of the regular reactive response, governments must be more proactive, for instance using aircraft to circle forest and croplands before the burning season to serve as a deterrent and warning to people that they are being watched. Jokowi has also instructed his ministers to revoke licenses of companies that are found to have used fire. As a direct result of this, several hundred companies have been identified, however it still remains to be seen if these cases will be resolved satisfactorily. If patronage relations prove to still be stronger than Jokowi’s clout, then we should all brace ourselves for more haze in the following years.