Simon Tay, For The Straits Times

A personal journey through the haze

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

An activist looks back on 17 years of effort to help clear the air in the region, and assesses the progress made and what more needs to be done.

My son, Luke, was born in 1997. That year, the haze from fires in Indonesia persisted for months.

Last year, he turned 17. The haze was still with us and, at one point, the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) spiked at the hazardous level of 401. Singapore was blacked out at noon and people scrambled for masks.

My mother, then 81, stayed indoors for fear that her lung congestion and breathing problems would recur.

All of us are affected by the haze, but the elderly and the young can be most vulnerable.

Following the fires of 1997, I have worked with many others to seek a solution.

As a professor of international law, I have focused on environmental issues. In 1998, I chaired the first regional dialogue about the haze with Indonesian and Malaysian experts and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). While serving as a Nominated Member of Parliament, I moved a vote to urge that our Government do more to tackle the haze, and also led a delegation to Jakarta for dialogue on the issue.

For more than a decade, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), the think-tank I chair, has consistently advocated for action against the haze.

Since last year, positive steps have been taken. Indonesia recognised the problem and declared a state of emergency as haze closed airports nearest to the fires.

Its Parliament has finally ratified the Asean agreement on transboundary haze. Singapore now has a national law to hold firms accountable, even if the fires are outside our territory. These are steps that provide the elements of a possible solution. Yet the problem persists. While the PSI 401 record has not been breached, fires this year have, at times, been as bad or worse than before.

The haze is a complex problem for which there is no silver bullet. Cooperation between governments is required, as well as action by corporations, local communities and NGOs.

Here are some personal snapshots of my journey through the haze.

From anger and paper promises to cooperation

THE fires of 1997-1998 were declared a "global disaster" by the United Nations Environment Programme, and many countries offered help with firefighting and water bombing.

Then Indonesian President Suharto apologised and accepted "moral" responsibility for the haze. But with the country in financial and then political crisis, little was done.

Post-crisis Indonesia set out to become the world's largest producer of palm oil and, as the markets for this valuable product soared, more land was opened up, often using fire. Other types of plantations - big and small - added to the problem.

Many, moreover, pointed to companies controlled from Singapore and Malaysia as culprits.

Fast-forward to the present and we can see that conditions for effective action have considerably improved.

The years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ushered in a more stable and prosperous Indonesia. There have been pledges for greater forest conservation. There were years - 2008 to 2012 - when the fires seemed more controlled.

After last year's crisis, Dr Yudhoyono apologised and declared an emergency. Soon after that event, I met Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who then led the Presidential Delivery Unit.

A forthright and able man, Pak Kuntoro had been a key figure in the peaceful rebuilding of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami. Now focused on the haze, he showed determination to take action, despite challenges in gathering information and accurate maps to determine plantation ownership.

Soon after our meeting, his agency named a number of large companies believed to be implicated in the fires and haze. They, however, issued rebuttals and, without a single authoritative map and proof, no prosecutions resulted. Good intentions must be backed up.

There has since been a change of administration in Indonesia, with the election of Mr Joko Widodo as the new president. Jokowi, as he is known, has shown the ability to deliver results, as well as concern for the common man. We can hope that efforts against the haze will continue and take root for Indonesia's own sake.

Complicated picture on the ground

YET even if politicians in the capital agree, realities on the ground may remain difficult. A recent trip to Pangkalan Kerinci, near Pekanbaru in Riau province, reminded me of this.

There is a vast horizon in Sumatra with some plantations as big as all of Singapore.

While some corporations manage their concessions well, other areas are left unmanaged and are fire-prone.

The visit I took was as a guest of Royal Golden Eagle, which owns both the Asia Pacific Resources International (April) pulp and paper business and Asian Agri palm oil operations, and has been criticised by environmental NGOs. But meeting Mr Anderson Tanoto, heir to the family-owned company, gives cause for optimism.

Mr Anderson studied at an Ivy League university and is now focused on operations in Kerinci, and personally emphasises the company's commitment to sustainability.

When I toured the large-scale, high-efficiency plant, viewed the planted forests of acacia, and saw the multimillion-dollar fire-fighting team on a trial run, my confidence grew that real efforts were being made to grow the business efficiently and sustainably.

He and his managers explained that if their forests burned, they would lose the feedstock for the paper and pulp business, and therefore their profits.

In January and February this year, when fires blazed, production stopped to shift the focus to firefighting and prevention measures.

The picture, however, got more complicated outside the huge factory compound.

Flying by helicopter along the river, we spotted a small plot of land outside April's compound, still smoking. Other parcels of land had been burnt and were covered with fallen logs and ash.

Mr Anderson said that when there is no clear land management, people just grab what they can.

There is, however, scope for hope.

Later, we met some of the small-scale oil palm farmers. They lack formal education and capital but have prospered by selling their palm oil to Asian Agri. One farmer, Pak Sanoto, recently acquired a new car and a new house.

Next year, the farmer told me, the palms would be replanted and they would get financial assistance so they could hire large backhoes to clear the land without fire.

This will be checked and verified - not only by Asian Agri but also by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a not-for-profit organisation that certifies producers who pledge to go green.

Otherwise, they will not be able to sell their production to the largest customers - such as multinational consumer goods giant Unilever - which has pledged to purchase only sustainable palm oil.

This is the long supply chain, from the ground to the factory and onto the shelves of our supermarkets, that must be greened. Singapore as a hub for finance and trade can help to steer growers away from fire. But at the end of our visit, I get a sense of the scale of the challenge once more.

We drive along a long, hot and dusty track that weaves through miles of plantations. There are so many small growers to educate against the use of fire, and not all the big companies will truly move towards sustainable practices.

Progress on efforts against the haze is possible. But the path forward, like that track in Riau, will not be paved and smooth but long, rough and often tricky.

Despite some haze, our plane takes off on time and lands safely back in Singapore.

At breakfast the next morning, I read that the rainy season is starting and fires should ebb in the coming weeks.

But as I drive my son Luke to school, there is still a fringe of haze on the horizon, and I cannot help but think ahead to the next dry season and the ones after that as he grows up, and wonder what can be done to put a final stop to this.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). From today to Sunday, SIIA is holding the first public exhibition in Singapore about the causes of, and responses to, the haze, in partnership with NGOs and companies.