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The Straits Times says

Fighting haze with a single voice

The recent promise by an Indonesian official that there will not be a repeat of the severe haze that affected the region last year is a reassuring reminder of Jakarta's determination to act against the scourge. The promise gained credibility because it came from Mr Nazir Foead, chief of the Peatland Restoration Agency, which was set up in January to protect peatlands and reduce the forest fires that lie at the heart of the problem. The creation of the agency itself is an indication that Indonesian President Joko Widodo treats seriously the enormous health, economic and diplomatic costs imposed by the haze.

The costs fall heavily on Indonesians themselves too. Last year, at least 19 people died from haze-related illnesses in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and an alarming number of acute respiratory tract infections were reported. The World Bank estimated that Indonesia had suffered losses of around 221 trillion rupiah (S$22.5 billion), or an estimated 1.9 per cent of its predicted gross domestic product, last year as a result of haze-generating fires. Conspiring with a lengthy dry season and the impact of El Nino, the daily emissions from the fires reportedly surpassed the average daily emissions of the entire US economy. The effects were also felt keenly in Malaysia and Singapore, amplifying the haze's transboundary nature. Considering the widespread harm caused, it was not excessive for observers to call it a crime against humanity.

It is against this harrowing background that Indonesia embarked on its latest anti-haze efforts. However, those initiatives are being weakened by conflicting signals emerging from different sectors of the political and administrative establishment. For example, Mr Joko called for a morato- rium on new concessions for oil palm plantations and land for mining activities. However, the Agriculture Ministry preferred a zero-deforestation pledge by the private sector to be disbanded. There was a clear divergence of objectives in what should have been a united policy.

In the same vein, but this time with insistent regional implications, appeared an inexplicable interjection by Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar. She admonished Singapore, advising it to focus on its own role in the transboundary issue instead of concerning itself with what its neighbour is doing. Asean members would step up to do more if their role is made clear. It is up to Indonesia to prevent the burning, for example, by acting against businesses operating on its territory that flout its laws. Singapore has passed legislation to hold culprits accountable for haze but to succeed in court, it will need evidence to support a case. Haze has been going on for many decades that it will take steely will and decisive steps to check the common urge to burn. To snuff out reckless habits, Indonesian leaders must speak with one voice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting haze with a single voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe