APSN Banner

Casting light on the haze

Straits Times - September 4, 1997

Unlike the pervasive haze in 1994 which trapped Singapore in a suffocating day-long twilight, the island has so far been spared the worst of this year's seasonal nuisance. Road and air visibility has not been impaired too badly, and those with respiratory complaints have not reported anything untoward. It can get worse, of course, at least until the onset of the north-east monsoon season in November, when the rains perform their self-cleansing of the atmosphere. But Malaysia has been having it bad, as it has in most years, because it lies smack in the path of prevailing winds. These blasts carrying the residue of country - sized burning forests in Indonesia have made such a muck of the air over the Klang Valley, which has Kuala Lumpur at its centre, that the federal authorities have declared a national disaster. Car-driving may be controlled as a result. Apart from car emissions, the valley's extensive discharge of pollutants from industries and construction means that Malaysia has had an air quality problem to begin with. But the Indonesian forest fires which reach their peak during the dry months from July to October have acted as the coup de grace.

An obvious question arises: are Singapore and Malaysia to endure the annual haze as an act of nature? As obviously, no. Aside from wind direction, which is predictable though by no means controllable except by adapting to it, spontaneous combustion in dry forests is unheard of. There has to be a spark. That is, the problem is man-made. Plantation companies' large-scale clearing of forests by burning, as well as farmers' slash and burn methods of cultivation, have been the source of the heartburn. This is where desirable solutions – such as banning what is called controlled burning, or making it unnecessary – appear to run into a stonewall of vested interests and cultural habits. Forestry products are Indonesia's second-largest non-oil revenue - earner after textiles. It is conceded that any prohibitions have to be weighed against that sector's importance to the economy. As for farmers, they have for ages been practising slash-and-burn to grow food crops and for habitation, a habit unlikely to be modernised anytime soon in that sprawling archipelago. Another follow-on question: Let things be, then? No!

It should be acknowledged here that recent actions by the Indonesian government make it plain that it is doing something concrete about the scourge. What the results will be is left to be seen. This week, the Forestry Ministry warned plantation companies of legal action if they continue to clear land by burning. Five firms in Riau are being investigated; prosecution may follow. As ministry estimates show that plantation firms account for 80 per cent of forest fires, zeroing in on this sector is the right move. But warnings are one thing, enforcement another. This is where passage by Parliament last month of a Bill increasing penalties for environmental pollution, including forest burning, is noteworthy. The old law prescribes a 10-year jail sentence and a 100 million rupiah (S$50,000) fine as the maximum. These are now 15 years and 250 million rupiah, respectively.

How Indonesia adjusts its legal censure to the scale of an offence is for it to decide in the light of variable factors. These would include the impact on the economy and labour, relations with neighbouring countries and environmental health (its own and the region's). But it is clear that only the toughest exercise of legal restraint will bring an improvement in the situation. Taking on polluters head-on is getting to the heart of the matter. The authorities deserve to succeed as the implications will extend far beyond the country's borders, extensive though they are. Joint actions with Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei in fighting forest fires – such as via provision of satellite pictures and meteorological data or water-bombing raging fires – can accomplish only so much. A lasting solution lies solely in Indonesia's hands. This time next year, the haze will be back – of that there is not a doubt. One should be cheering if it gets lighter in succeeding years until nobody talks about it any more.