Tackling haze a joint effort

Tackling haze a joint effort

This coming Saturday marks the 13th anniversary of the signing of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. All Asean members ratified the agreement the following year except Indonesia which, after waiting for 12 years, ratified the document last year. It is not difficult to understand why.

Throughout those years, annual haze from out-of-control peat forest and plantation fires in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan continued to be blown across the sea to blanket the skies of Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand. And throughout those years, Indonesia failed miserably to address the problem.

The haze problem is the worst in two decades due to a strong El Nino. A thick layer of smog has been blanketing Pattani, Songkhla, Yala, Narathiwat, Satun, Surat Thani and Phuket for the past several days.

The toxic haze has now reached health-threatening levels. Face masks have been distributed to residents and tourists to protect themselves. Children, old people and those with respiratory problem have been advised to avoid outdoor activities. In Songkhla, about 20 residents rallied in front of the Indonesian consulate to protest. Meanwhile, in Bangkok, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called for closer regional cooperation to tackle the haze problem.  

If the prime minister's appeal for regional cooperation is the best we can do under present circumstances, then it is disappointing. It seems, as always, we have been very kreng jai (respectful) to Indonesia. A stronger collective message from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines should be sent out to Jakarta to pressure Indonesia to cooperate with its neighbours to tackle the haze, now a serious regional problem.

Indonesia is both the cause and victim of the haze problem. Undoubtedly, it has taken tougher action this year to deal with the problem. Several companies or plantation owners involved in causing fires, either themselves or their proxies, are facing legal action. Some 20,000 troops and police and workers have been mobilised to fight the fires. Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the BBC recently that it would take several years of mitigation efforts before positive results emerge. 

But Indonesia should have been more cooperative with its haze-hit neighbours. The Asean transboundary agreement requires member countries to cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent, monitor and mitigate transboundary haze pollution by controlling the sources of land and forest fires, provision of assessment and early warning systems, and mutual assistance. 

Sadly, Indonesia has turned down offers from Singapore and Malaysia to help combat fires.  

Since it may take years to convince the farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan to quit their slash-and-burn traditional practice, it is more effective and faster to focus on the main culprits -- the oil palm plantations.  

The message must be sent to agro companies to stop burning down the forests for their massive oil palm plantations, or risk losing financial support. This means the banks in Malaysia, Indonesia and, in particular, Singapore should be more socially responsible by stopping lending to irresponsible plantation investors.

Since many oil palm plantations that are engaging in slash-and-burn work are owned by Malaysian and Singaporean companies, their governments must not let Indonesia fight the haze alone. They must also stop their home-grown companies from destroying Indonesian forests.  

While Indonesia must step up its efforts to end the haze, affected countries -- including Thailand -- must do their part to hold agro companies accountable by hitting them in their pockets where it hurts most.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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