Media Interview: CNBC

You can read the full article here.

  1. The haze has affected economies all around the region, but the political tone from the Indonesia’s neighbors has been relatively quiet. Is there a reason regional countries haven’t been more vocal? Are there likely closed-door discussions that might be more direct?
    There are two reasons for the quiet political tone. One is because of the traditional nature of diplomacy in ASEAN. Haze was one of the first environmental issues in the region that was picked up by ASEAN, and much of the regional communication over the issue has been done through or under the auspices of this organization. Hence, the nature of engagement on this issue has very much been following the non-interference, non-confrontational norms of the organization. Under ASEAN norms, it would seem that it is more important to keep Indonesia “on side” (not to offend or overtly pressure Indonesia), with resolving the problem more of a secondary concern. The second reason is because of the interwoven agribusiness linkages that blur the lines between the culprit and victim in this issue. Even though most of the fires occur in Indonesia, commercial plantations, many of which have Malaysian and Singaporean links, have been found to be a major source of these fires there. Hence, neighbouring governments must tread carefully to safeguard and protect their commercial interests in Indonesia. Of course we are not privy to close-door discussions, so we cannot speculate on that. However, the nature of ASEAN also is that most sensitive issues are discussed off-the-record (corridor, or coffee-break diplomacy) so this is quite likely.

  2. Has the duration of the fires this time likely changed the political tone over this issue?
    There has been some change of political tone lately, especially from Singapore. When Singapore reached its highest PSI of 400 in 2013, it began to take a more direct and confrontational tone towards Indonesia over this problem. Particularly, Singapore has recently put into place the Transboundary Pollution Bill that allows them to prosecute entities in Indonesia that export haze to Singapore. I would say this could be a turning point for the nature of engagement over haze in the region, but only time will tell as this will depend on how well this bill can be put into practise.
  3. Why is it so hard for Indonesia to get a handle on preventing the fires? Or taking enforcement measures against the fire starters?
    Because of the seasonal nature of the haze, people tend to forget about it once it is cleared up (out of sight out of mind). Because of this, prevention has generally not been a priority for managing the fires in Indonesia. Much of the practises in place are reactive, in terms of fire-fighting equipment etc. Positively, ASEAN has lately officially recommended that there should be a shift of focus from reactionary to preventive measures, so this would be something to watch. In terms of enforcement measures, there are several reasons for this. Number one is the secluded nature of the areas where the fires are burning. These areas are usually far from city centres and enforcement agencies, so it is extremely hard to police. Number two is patronage and corruption. There exists a thick web of patron-client relations that surround the agribusiness sector in Indonesia. Because burning is a quick, cheap and easy way to clear land in preparation for planting, many plantations prefer this method to mechanical ones. Often these plantations (clients) have cultivated strong relations with relevant local and central authorities (patrons), either through genuine friendship or monetary kickbacks. Because of this, they are easily able to get away with burning thanks to the protection of their ‘patrons’. This is why there have been extremely few cases of companies being prosecuted for burning in Indonesia thus far.
  4. Indonesia has said it won’t issue further concessions for peat land. How likely is this measure to remain in force? Are those lands still likely to face fires in the future? 
    Before he passed leadership over to Jokowi, Yudhoyono had renewed the moratorium on the opening of peatlands in Indonesia. However, the moratorium process itself was flawed because just before the first moratorium was passed in 2011, it was reported that many plantation companies were quickly assigned vast areas of land for future development. And since the moratorium does not work retroactively, these plantations can still legitimately open up the lands assigned to them. Furthermore, Indonesia faces a continued problem in terms of proper mapping of lands. One of the goals of the moratorium was to halt expansion to give time to the authorities to properly map out who owns what in Indonesia. However until today, there is no ‘One Map’ that does this. So if this problem of land mapping remains unresolved and land ownership remains unclear, the moratorium will continue to be less than effective. Also, there continues to be a side problem of smallholders (which may be encouraged by the gray market of uncertified palm oil) that fall into the gray area of the moratorium. They are allowed to open up to two hectares of land and if this continues to happens in peatland areas, this would further undermine the moratorium.
  5. With the fires lasting so long this year, how badly might this hurt the economies in Borneo, Kalimantan and Sumatra in the longer term?
    I do not have any exact figures on this, but it is easy to see how the situation will hurt the economies of these regions closes to the fires. Crop yields have been known to drop due to haze, and this will drive up food costs, compounded with added transportation costs due to bad visibility from haze. Productivity hours will drop, especially for sectors out in the open, like farming, fishing and construction as workers fall sick or take the day off to avoid adverse effects of the haze. People will also have to spend more on hospitalization and medicine costs, which they would otherwise not have to if the skies were clear. And in terms of the larger picture, continued haze and its association with oil palm should drive down the demand for oil palm in the long term, and since this sector is an important source of livelihood to many in the region, this should also reduce incomes. 

With the fires lasting so long this year, how badly might this hurt the economies in Borneo, Kalimantan and Sumatra in the longer term?

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