South-east Asia seeks new strategy to fight 'slash and burn' haze problem

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - As a blanket of haze, caused by thick smoke from forest fires in Indonesia, covers parts of South-east Asia, the region is struggling to find an effective response to the problem, experts said.

The haze has caused health problems, flight delays and school closures across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in what has become an annual ordeal that has defied attempts by governments, businesses and green groups to tackle it.

At the heart of the problem are palm oil plantation owners, who use cheap and easy slash-and-burn techniques to clear forests and meet rising global demand for the oil used for cooking and in household products from shampoo to ice cream.

Experts stress that Indonesia, home to the world's third-largest tropical forest acreage, holds the key to the problem and needs to put into practice a long-term plan to enforce laws, tackle the fires and spend more on prevention.

Ms Margareth Sembiring, senior analyst at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the complexity of the issue means it is difficult to make the region haze-free. "Strengthening law enforcement in Indonesia is undoubtedly key in solving the problem," she said.

Other experts say companies and consumers must also play a part by pushing for palm oil to be produced more sustainably.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace have targeted companies in high-profile campaigns, and some firms have made commitments to help stop deforestation by palm oil plantation owners.

Golden Agri-Resources, the world's second-largest listed palm planter by acreage, said last week it had stopped buying from a supplier punished by Indonesia for allegedly causing forest fires.

Indonesia takes some action

Indonesia, the world's fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly from deforestation, will be one of the countries under scrutiny at December's United Nations climate change conference, which will try to get legally binding commitments from the 120 member nations to cut CO2 emissions.

Under criticism from its neighbours, the government has investigated more than 200 companies and ordered four to suspend operations for allegedly causing forest fires as it scrambles to control blazes on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands. 

Weak law enforcement in Indonesia is exacerbated by a lack of transparency about land ownership, making it harder to pinpoint and punish perpetrators, experts said.

"Without a centralised, public map that shows resource ownership, it will remain hard to find the offending companies or landowners," said Mr Andika Putraditama, Indonesia research analyst at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Indonesia last December launched its long-awaited "One Map" initiative, a comprehensive map of land ownership to provide clarity on the boundaries of land owned by companies, communities and the government.

It is due to be completed in two to three years, but progress has been hampered by overlapping land use permits and other technical issues, experts said.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said her ministry had given all data about the permits it had issued to the Economy Ministry, which is coordinating the project. "Basically, we want early prevention (of the fires), if possible starting now," she said in response to questions put by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She declined to comment on questions about the budget for fire prevention and efforts to make land allocation more transparent.

Slow regional efforts 

Indonesia in 2014 became the last country to ratify the Association of South-east Asian Nations' (Asean) transboundary agreement to tackle haze, some 12 years after it was launched.

The accord calls for concerted regional efforts to prevent or put out the fires, but every year, June-September monsoon winds send thick smoke from Indonesia to Malaysia and Singapore.

"It is important to understand that Asean stands on a sovereignty principle," said Ms Sembiring. "The onus is on all member states to develop their own national policies and programmes based on the agreement and implement them accordingly."

Singapore went further after a surge in forest fires in Indonesia engulfed it in particularly thick haze in 2013, causing record levels of air pollution.

The city state passed a law last year that allows it to sue companies or individuals - based in any country - that cause haze, a step that other nations could emulate to boost enforcement, Ms Sembiring said.

Sustainable palm oil 

The haze has also led to calls for a boycott of products containing palm oil, but green groups say a more effective approach would be to boost sustainable production.

The rapid growth of palm oil plantations, now covering over 11 million hectares in Indonesia - an area bigger than Iceland - has been a leading cause of fires and deforestation.

Demand for sustainable palm oil is rising, and around a fifth of the world's palm oil is now certified as such by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body of consumers, green groups, plantation firms and consumer goods companies..

RSPO standards require its members to stop cutting virgin forest, produce or source oil only from land to which growers have clear rights, and not to clear land by burning.

Through satellite data and online maps the RSPO has tracked the origins of the current haze. The data showed no fire alerts at RSPO-certified palm oil concessions between January and August, compared with 627 at those without certification.