ASEAN’s Dirtiest Challenge Makes an Unwanted Return

Can the region successfully tackle its haze problem?

ASEAN’s Dirtiest Challenge Makes an Unwanted Return
Credit: ASEAN flag via

Every year, fires are lit to clear land in Indonesia. The government blames poor farmers while ignoring local as well as Malaysian and Singaporean companies whose environmental practices have seen schools close, people ordered inside and hospitals inundated with patients. The dreaded haze adds billions of dollars to the cost of doing business.

For years, that haze has annually choked some 200 million people across much of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Thailand.

The malaise offers a desperately telling insight into the failures of ASEAN and its cherished ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) to resolve regional issues.

Less than four months before the AEC is launched, the inability of the Indonesians to clear the haze once and for all was again on embarrassing display amid warnings that the elderly, pregnant women, and children should minimize prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion.

“This always happens during the hot and dry season and we would like to apologize to the governments of Singapore and Malaysia,” said Hamdhani Mukhdar, a politician whose responsibilities include international relations and the environment,  at an ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

The paltry one million dollars Jakarta pledged to combat the smoke is akin to fighting a bushfire with a garden hose.

Again, people are being warned to stay indoors, stay hydrated and use masks where necessary.

The Singaporean 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) is again heading into the unhealthy 95-107 range. This came after Malaysia’s embattled prime minister Najib Razak hailed ASEAN’s agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution.

“It is a historic step one that many of us in the region know all too well,” he said. “It is absolutely necessary. It is the right to clean air, which is topical.”

Jakarta only ratified the 2002 agreement this January after years of dragging its feet on the issue amid endless and useless prodding by its neighbors. The sensitive backdrop centered on ASEAN’s mantra of mutual non-interference in the affairs of member states.

The agreement mandates Indonesia to mitigate the haze problem through a concerted national effort and international cooperation. Otherwise it can be held liable, which could prove costly.

According to Verdinand Robertua, a lecturer in international relations at the Christian University of Indonesia and a researcher at Marthinus Academy, annual forest fires contribute 60 percent of Indonesia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Indonesia is the word’s third biggest emitter after China and the United States.

According to satellite images, 70 percent of hot spots are on local plantations, Robertua said. Data from Singapore’s Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing shows that 70 percent of hot spots are in palm oil plantations.

Already, the haze has disrupted flights. At Kuching, landings at the local airport have been aborted because of thick haze. Doctors report a rise in respiratory illnesses, asthma and eye problems.

In 2013, PT Adei Plantations, a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, was charged over illegal fires that blanketed Singapore and much of Malaysia. The company denied any wrongdoing. A further eight companies and 41 individuals were suspected of lighting fires in Sumatra the same year.

Yet fires continue to be lit. According to the World Resources Institute, about half of the fires analyzed in 2014 were on land managed by palm oil concessions and logging companies.

Companies such as Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd, Golden Agri Resources and Wilmar International were linked to the annual burning off, which is also destroying peat reserves, a foundation of rainforest ecosystems.

As the countdown to the AEC nears its 11th hour, a show of unified force against the haze would  go a long way in convincing skeptics that ASEAN is capable of genuinely integrating into a regional community. On the other hand, failure on the haze front will strip people of the fundamental human right to clean air.

Luke Hunt can be followed on twitter @lukeanthonyhunt