Among the more pressing environmental and diplomatic issues plaguing Southeastern Southeast Asia is “the haze”.
(A quick explanatory pause for those unfamiliar with the issue. On a seasonal basis large numbers of forest fires, often lit to illegally clear land in Indonesian Sumatra and Malaysia for growing highly profitable cash crops, emit stupendous plumes of fine carbonates that cause immense air pollution, and consequently serious public health concerns, for surrounding settlements. The intensity and duration of the haze is exacerbated by smouldering fires in the vast underlying peat reserves, which smoulder endlessly and are incredibly difficult to extinguish).
Among those complaining the loudest are the Singaporeans, whose relative wealth and quality of life expectations ensure the issue remains among the most prominent regional public policy issues seeking a resolution. The graphic below, available here, gives some indication of the Singapore perspective.
There are many elements frustrating the search for solutions, but two elements are particularly problematic.
One is that the profits from the land clearing quickly disappear into a very murky world of politics and power, with many of the ultimate profit takers from the land clearing being extremely wealthy and having surprisingly Singaporean sounding surnames. Squeezed between public pressure to do more and private pressure to do no more, the Singapore government’s impotency on the issue takes on a new dimension.
The other element is that Indonesia is poorly equipped to combat the haze. While there are technical and budgetary limits to Indonesia’s fire fighting capacity, once again the deeper issue is corruption. Not only do resources disappear, but the political will that may emanate strongly from Jakarta largely evaporates by the time it passes down the bureaucracy to the fire front. In the highly fluid power plays that characterise life at the frontiers of the Indonesian state, siding with the environment against big money can be fatal choice of allegiances at a local level.
So what to do about these two elements in the issue? They are different problems, so I offer different potential solutions.
On the first element, initial momentum may come, and need to come, at a community level from groups such as the People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze). You can read more of their initiative here and here.* While their pilot project is in Selangor, Malaysia, the approach provides a template for a way forward at a regional level.**
On the second element, one idea I have been contemplating for a while is a reciprocal arrangement between Australian and Indonesian fire fighting agencies. Indonesia would have access to Australian fire fighting expertise and training, with the presence of external firefighters increasing transparency over local firefighting efforts.*** Australia, in turn, could benefit from large numbers of trained Indonesian firefighters supplementing Australian firefighting resources during the Australian wildfire season.
As a secondary benefit, this could potentially improve relations between the two countries, and with a significant salary supplement for Indonesian firefighters this would go some way to raising the prestige of their work and offer a partial counter to other inducements to underperform in their environmental protection role.
Addressing both elements won’t solve the issue, but with the haze being potentially lethal to local populations and an environmental disaster on a global scale the responses offer considerable benefits at relatively trivial costs.
* Disclaimer – Regarding the request for financial support, I have no affiliation with the group and readers must make their own decisions on the merit of the cause and the trustworthiness of those soliciting donations. I take no responsibility for your decisions or their actions.
** Viewing this through the prism of my earlier post here, this group’s activities could be seen as an act of social conformity compensating for a failure of the law.
*** Which is exactly why the idea would be unwelcomed by some key stakeholders.