Indonesians, pull together against haze
"INDONESIA must be held accountable for the haze pollution here!" yelled a strategic-studies classmate of mine last Tuesday.
At the time, the haze had affected Singapore since the previous Sunday.
Fortunately, she was not Singaporean, which helped to alleviate my feelings of guilt as a citizen of a country that has repeatedly been blamed for the annual occurrence of transboundary haze pollution.
Still, she had the right to complain, as she had also been affected by the polluted air.
I paused for a while before responding. I was aware that I would not be able to completely address her grievance. I acted defensively, sharing the blame for the haze on foreign plantation companies operating in Sumatra, where forest fires cause the haze that is then blown over neighbouring countries, particularly Singapore and Malaysia.
It was fortunate that, later that day, the Indonesian House of Representatives agreed unanimously to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a regional policy platform that obliges Indonesia, as an Asean member state, to involve itself actively in efforts to mitigate air pollution, both nationally and through intensified regional and international cooperation.
The ratification of the agreement helped me explain to my classmate the following day that Indonesia was, in fact, complying with its regional commitments.
The House's move came over a decade after the agreement was signed in June 2002 in Kuala Lumpur and came into force in November 2003.
The ratification also came only a month after the Singapore Parliament passed the 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which enables regulators to sue individuals or companies in neighbouring countries that cause severe air pollution in Singapore through slash-and-burn agricultural practices.
Apart from the House's earlier inertia, the blame for repeated annual haze problems should be placed on ignorant local government officials, particularly those of the provinces where hot spots have frequently been identified.
Last year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stepped in, ordering the immediate water bombing of forest fires, and apologised to his Asean neighbours.
Now that the common regional platform in the fight against transboundary haze pollution is in place, firm law enforcement must be taken indiscriminately against any company and individual found to practise slash-and-burn policies.
The action of the Pelalawan district court in Riau province earlier this month - which was taken against Malaysian company Adei Plantation and Industry and its general manager, Malaysian Danesuvaran K. R. Singam, for activities that caused forest fires in the region - should not be the last law-enforcement one.
Special attention should be exercised by law-enforcement agencies in the regions, particularly when these hot spots are located in provinces outside Java, the main island in Indonesia.
It has become an open secret that criminal cases prosecuted and tried in regions far from Java often end in verdicts that defy common sense and justice. Some cases never even reach court.
All of this happens because the supervision of local law enforcers and media coverage is minimal, if not absent.
A thorough legal framework to fight this rogue business practice should also include a move by local banks and the stock-market authorities to blacklist such companies or investors.
Apart from legal actions against violators, the general public could engage in a concerted move to punish the companies by, among other actions, filing civil lawsuits against them and by boycotting the products of plantation companies that practise slash-and-burn methods.
One measure that the government could take against such violators is imposing import bans and trade restrictions on the products of companies linked to illegal agricultural activities.
With regard to collective measures to be applied in the aftermath of Indonesia's ratification of the Asean agreement, it is perhaps advisable to have a joint secretariat that would coordinate the information, reports and policies needed to address the problems resulting from transboundary haze pollution in the region.
As Deputy Minister for Environmental-Damage Control and Climate Change Arief Yuwono said last month, the joint secretariat should bring together international experts who would work on comprehensive recommendations for state members dealing with land and forest fires that cause transboundary air pollution.
Upon the establishment of the secretariat, the campaign against transboundary air pollution could begin with voluntary fund raising from state members to finance programmes as recommended in Article 20 of the haze agreement, Mr Arief added.
The fight against transboundary haze pollution is not a one-man show, as it requires not only regional cooperation within the Asean framework - specifically among countries affected by the haze - but also integrated measures among related agencies and organisations at the domestic level within Indonesia, including the ruling authorities, law-enforcement agencies, the media and, last but not least, the people.
All the necessary elements for the fight against seasonal haze are already in place. What is needed now is the serious implementation of all commitments.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK