Southeast Asia’s Burning Issue: From The 2015 Haze Crisis To A More Robust System

This policy brief was released in conjunction with our 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources on 15 April 2016.

The 2015 haze crisis will be remembered as one of the worst haze episodes in Southeast Asia. For months, peat and forest fires in Indonesia caused the region to suffer from severe haze pollution, with the Pollutant Standards Index in some Indonesian provinces hitting above 2,000. The prolonged haze exacted enormous social, economic, and environmental costs on the region; the gravity of the situation prompted swift and decisive actions from a range of stakeholders including the Indonesia and Singapore governments, plantation companies, retail companies, financial institutions, and the civil society.

Yet the root causes of the haze are complex and there is no single, quick solution to the problem. A tradition of fire-based agriculture and the politics of land management remain at the heart of the issue. Corruption, weak law enforcement, and the lack of transparency surrounding the supply chain in the plantation sector help explain the persistence of the fires and haze, despite the efforts of Southeast Asian governments and ASEAN in the last decade.

This policy brief suggests that in the immediate and short-term future, emphasis should be placed on mitigating the spread and impact of the fires in Indonesia. Stakeholders on the ground, from local governments to plantation companies to local communities should be equipped with the appropriate resources and know-how in fire-fighting. In addition, the Jokowi administration should push ahead with legislation to ban the burning of land, regardless of their size. Clear and strict law enforcement must be followed to punish those found guilty of instigating or causing peat or forest fires. This will hopefully act as a deterrent against anyone seeking to benefit from the fires at the expense of local communities and national interests.

As financiers of the agroforestry sector, banks and financial institutions in the region can play a strong role in “greening” the sector by demanding for clients to meet certain environment, social and governance (ESG) standards. As one of the worst affected ASEAN countries by transboundary haze pollution, Singapore can and should do more in this area given its reputation as the region’s financial hub and in tandem with counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia.

For the middle to longer term, our key recommendations go to Indonesia, the industry and the governments and peoples of ASEAN.

To address the challenges of unclear land tenure, lack of accurate maps and technical capabilities, and poor public consultation on land transactions, the Indonesian government needs to promote and institutionalize good forest and land governance. At the industry level, major agribusiness companies must remain committed to “zero burning” policy and establishing traceability across their entire supply chain. Companies should strive to comply with existing international and national certification standards as well as promote sustainability internally and externally with their stakeholders.

Public dialogue and policy advocacy on understanding and stopping the haze must be an ongoing effort. Continued pressure from the people to the governments and corporations to tackle the haze problem cannot be let up. Similarly, the advocacy work can benefit from a more systematic mapping and analysis of the political economy of the haze-producing fires on the ground.

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