There is a haze twin that is more dangerous

Finding solutions harder in haze of ignorance, misinformation

Sick of the haze that has made the air smell like a barbecue pit the last few months?

It has an even more dangerous twin brother you can't see or smell.

I am referring to the haze of ignorance and misinformation that has accompanied the annual burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

This other haze is as thick, clouding real understanding of the issues and making it even harder to find realistic solutions.

There are three areas it has poisoned: business, public health and politics.

The business haze is especially dense.

Most people know that the burning being carried out in Indonesia is done every year to clear land for agriculture, mainly to grow pulpwood to make paper, and for palm oil plantations.

Big businesses owning large tracts of land are accused of being involved because these operations require huge resources.

 

In fact, for palm oil, Indonesia is the world's largest supplier, producing half the global amount.

It's a large part of the economy, accounting for US$5.7 billion (S$7.9 billion) or 11 per cent of its export earnings.

And if you, like me, wonder why it's only in recent years the problem has become so bad, it's because the business has grown at breakneck speed, with production tripling between 2002 and 2012.

But here's the hazy part: No one seems to know exactly who all are involved in the slash and burn.

Talk to the companies and they all say: Not me, it's the others who are the culprits, including small-time farmers.

But are there not ownership or concession maps showing who owns what land?

Apparently, they are not accurate because new concessions were granted when Indonesian provinces gained greater autonomy after the fall of President Suharto, leading to multiple ownerships.

Here's one other smelly complication: The Ministry of Forestry, which is in charge of granting these rights, has been singled out by the country's anti-corruption agency.

For Singapore, not knowing which companies are responsible is a serious setback because the new law it recently passed to penalise the culprits is useless unless they can be identified.

So far, the authorities have served legal letters to six companies asking them to supply information which might help determine their involvement.

But this is bound to be a tedious and possibly fruitless exercise.

No company would willingly give evidence to incriminate itself.

Here's one radical idea to make prosecutions easier: Place the burden of proof on these companies and not the other way round.

When the air is being poisoned, the thought that unknown companies are enriching themselves making millions of dollars and getting away scot-free is enough to kill any fair-minded person.

Take a leaf out of the anti-corruption laws here, in which a defendant, who is living beyond his means, is presumed to be guilty unless he proves it wasn't done through ill-gotten gains.

It's a tough law framed this way because it would otherwise have been difficult to go after corrupt officials.

No one would have been willing to talk, including the person offering the bribe.

The haze law needs a similar provision, putting the onus on these companies to prove they are not culpable.

This isn't just a legal problem in need of a more effective law.

For the long-suffering people of Singapore and Malaysia, it's a life and death issue.

When the air is being poisoned, the thought that unknown companies are enriching themselves making millions of dollars and getting away scot-free is enough to kill any fair-minded person.

If it's hazy on the business front, it isn't any clearer in public health.

No one, it seems, can say how harmful it is inhaling all those burnt bits when the PSI reaches the unhealthy level because no research has been done on this.

What have been studied are the effects of long-term exposure in cities with pollution problems, such as those in China and the US.

But not the sort from burning forests and peatland in this part of the world and when exposure is intermittent but often intense.

It doesn't mean it isn't as harmful, just that no one knows.

This is obviously highly unsatisfactory and unacceptable.

It's like being back in the bad old days when people were in the dark about cigarette smoking causing lung cancer.

Isn't it time for public health authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), to get to the bottom of the health issue?

The WHO should take on this project because it is the foremost authority, and in 2005, it expanded its scope to include, not just the management of traditional diseases such as cholera and yellow fever, but any international public health risk.

The task is urgent now that it has been reported that four babies have died from lung infection the last two weeks in Palembang, Sumatra, where the haze has reached dangerous levels.

When lives are at stake, it won't do to be hazy about the ill-effects.

(For those interested in how WHO defines a health risk, here's an extract from its website: It requires all member states to notify it of "any novel or evolving risk to international public health... Such notifiable events can extend beyond communicable diseases and arise from any origin or source. This broad notification requirement aims at detecting, early on, all public health events that could have serious and international consequences, and preventing or containing them at source through an adapted response before they spread across borders.")

Finally, the haze has once again put the Indonesian government in the spotlight. Will it or will it not act to solve the problem and get to the root causes?

All the key officials have spoken, but reading their comments, I can't be sure one way or other.

Is there real commitment this time, after so many years of dilly-dallying? Or is it all another wayang until the next big whoosh of carbon particles?

The truth is that no one knows.

It's too hazy in Jakarta.

So, brace yourself for this other haze to be around for some time - no one knows which companies are involved, or what will happen to your body breathing in all that carbon, or whether Big Indonesia will finally act decisively.

If there is an equivalent PSI reading for this other haze, it would read 500 and climbing.

Hazardous and very dangerous.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'There's a haze twin that is more dangerous'. Print Edition | Subscribe