Will Indonesia's presidential candidates answer the burning question on haze?

Southeast Asia is bracing for what could be the worst smoke-filled fire season on record, just as news comes out that Indonesia's forests are disappearing faster than anywhere else on earth. This does not bode well for the region. But the two men who are vying to lead the world's third largest democracy could hold the solution in the palms of their hands.

On July 5, presidential candidates Joko Widodo, popularly known as "Jokowi", and Prabowo Subianto will clash in a televised debate focusing on environmental issues. This is just as well, because until now there has been little detail and little promise of action on what is the greatest transnational threat to people's health across the region: the haze.

Poor policy, weak enforcement and irresponsible companies can largely be blamed for the haze, an environmental and public health crisis caused by massive peat and forest fires in places like Sumatra in Indonesia, where decades of forest destruction has turned areas into a giant tinderbox.

The results of scientific modelling published in the US-based academic journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2012, suggested that 115,000 deaths annually in Southeast Asia could be attributed to smoke pollution from fires such as these. And that's not even to mention the planet-warming carbon these fires unlock from deep underground.

The Singapore government is expected to table the Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill in parliament this month (July), which attempts to hold companies accountable for the social and environmental impact of the forest fires in Singapore. However, the root of the problem remains unaddressed.

Despite a moratorium on forest clearance in place since 2011, a study published by the journal Nature Climate Change revealed late last week that in Indonesia rates of deforestation have actually accelerated under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Poorly coordinated policies, coupled with weak enforcement and increasing global demand for commodities like pulp and paper and palm oil is creating a recipe for climate change, loss of biodiversity and devastating fires.

Neither candidate has announced whether or not they support the moratorium or whether they would expand it to apply to all forests - a much needed measure. Furthermore, neither Mr Prabowo nor Mr Joko have announced policies on climate change, or policies to support a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The most significant environmental policy announcements from both candidates has been on forest rehabilitation, the idea being that natural forest which has been destroyed can somehow be resurrected. Sadly, even these announcements have contained little information on how, where and when the policy would apply.

In the last 12 months, however, elements of the corporate sector have been responding to public pressure and leading the way in forest protection. We've seen some great progress, much of it driven by the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are powering Greenpeace's campaign by petitioning and lobbying companies to protect forests. The companies concerned include pledges by Unilever and Procter & Gamble to stop sourcing palm oil from deforested areas in Indonesia. There have also been similar commitments from the world's largest palm oil trader last year, Wilmar International.

Companies like palm oil giant Golden Agri Resources and pulp and paper company Asia Pulp & Paper are also piloting methods that help determine what land can and cannot be developed, thereby setting aside forests for protection. Known as the high Carbon Stock approach, these are the sorts of initiatives that must be supported by Indonesia's leaders if Indonesia is to see an end to the destructive practices that lead to chronic air pollution from peat fires.

This momentum represents a shift towards responsibly produced commodities. It must be matched by government policies that protect all peatland and all forests. Mr Prabowo and Mr Joko must recognise that development does not mean destruction, and that Indonesia must work with its neighbours, NGOs and businesses to protect all forests and all peatlands.

It's time we put people above profits. It's time for the candidates to end their campaigns with a clear vision for a green and peaceful future.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a forests campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

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