The Indonesian government is finally acting against companies blamed for igniting fires that resulted in a massive haze enveloping an enormous swathe of Southeast Asia, with a charge filed against PT Adei Plantations, Malaysia’s third-largest palm oil planter.
The charge covers environmental damage arising out of the worse pollution to hit the region in 16 years. Another four companies are being investigated but they have not been identified.
PT Adei Plantations, a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, has denied any wrong doing in regards to the illegal fires which blanketed Singapore and much of Malaysia during June and July.
Igniting a forest fire carries stiff penalties in Indonesia. An individual faces jail terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to $10 million. Companies can be sued for damages and their operations closed.
It was the latest in a series of moves designed to fend off criticism of Jakarta’s handling of the smog, which has become an annual event. This year, however, pollution levels reached record levels, forcing schools to close, prompting health scares among people with respiratory problems, scaring off tourists and costing businesses billions of dollars.
The haze has been a diplomatic disaster for ASEAN unity for more than two decades.
Southeast Asia has 24 million hectares of peat. More than 70 percent is in Indonesia, primarily in West Papua, Sumatra and Borneo, and can extend to depths of up to 20 meters.
Peat fires can burn for months and continue burning underground long after the surface blaze has been extinguished by heavy annual rains. Their contribution to global warming has been heavy, with the worst of the fires releasing an estimated 2.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in 1997-1998. Historically, it was an extraordinary amount and is widely believed to be behind an acceleration in the increase of global carbon dioxide levels ever since.
Back then total costs incurred by medical institutions and through disruptions to travel and business were put at $9 billion. Scientists forecast that at the current burn-off rate peat deposits could be wiped out by 2040.
Late last month Jakarta also said it intended to ratify a treaty within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) by early next year to provide a regional response.
It is supposed to prevent the burning of forests, monitor prevention efforts, and provide for the exchange of information and mutual help, including an obligation to respond swiftly to requests from countries hit by the smog.
Indonesia, however, was the only member of ASEAN not to ratify the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, brokered in 2002.
"We hope we can ratify the agreement by the end of the year or early next year," the country's Environment Minister, Balthasar Kambuaya, said after a meeting of regional environment ministers – known as the “Haze Committee” in Kuala Lumpur.
His critics will argue this is too little too late and there are doubts over Indonesia’s ability to enforce its own laws anyway. But in the wake of another environmental tragedy, including the loss of habitat to native wildlife, any move to tackle this enormous problem should be welcomed.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.