AS MALAYSIA declares emergency status for two Johor towns, with over 200 schools closing, and residents of Indonesia and Singapore continuing to suffer from the choking haze, it's time to move beyond the blame game of claims and counter claims. Instead, we need to look at the facts, learn quickly from the data, and ensure political leaders, companies and communities take appropriate action to prevent this crisis from recurring.
Last Friday, the World Resources Institute published detailed data indicating the location of fires that have led to the widespread haze. Our aim was to provide objective information that would help shed light on where the fires are located and who is responsible.
Our analysis was simple. Using the best information that is publically available, we took satellite data showing alerts where fires are occurring, on the website of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), and combined it with maps of palm oil, tree plantation, and logging licences. We then tallied up the number of fire alerts in each concession, as well as on other land, and published the results, including an interactive map, on our website.
While this analysis is still preliminary, we highlighted three key points:
First, most of the fire alerts across Indonesia last week were in just one province, Riau. Within Riau, 52 per cent of the fire alerts were seen within the boundaries of pulpwood and oil palm plantations. Fewer alerts were found in officially protected forest areas, such as national parks, or in areas licensed for selective logging of natural forest. About 48 per cent of the fire alerts were outside of company concessions on land controlled and managed by others, including local communities.
Second, based on the official Indonesian concession maps published by the Ministry of Forestry from 2010, two groups of companies, Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas, control or are closely affiliated with the concessions with the largest number of Nasa fire alerts. We found a total of 32 company concessions where at least 10 fire alerts were observed during the period 12-20 June.
Third, and probably most important, more detailed analysis, with fully up-to-date company concession maps, is not possible because these maps are not publicly available.
We have heard from many sources that our information has helped provide insight into the location of the fires, but due to the lack of more transparent information, it is still incomplete.
Some concession boundaries may have shifted in recent years, some companies have changed hands, and updated information - which can quickly be converted into new maps - would enable officials and companies to better understand where and why the fires are burning, as well as being crucial for any efforts at prosecution.
We should not jump to conclusions about who is to blame.
Indonesian officials are promising a thorough investigation while Singapore's Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Minister, has said the country would consider possible legal action against companies in Singapore that contributed to the haze.
Knowing who is responsible and legally accountable for these fires can be determined only after careful collection of evidence, and proper due process. Such a process will also need to be carefully monitored by independent observers and analysts to help ensure that justice is done.
Looking forward, how can future fires and haze be prevented?
The Indonesian government has already been making important efforts to improve forest management. The recent extension of the moratorium on new concessions, across an area of forest almost the size of Japan, was a bold move.
Efforts to enhance coordination and data sharing between government agencies have been strengthened by the One Map initiative in Indonesia, which seeks to establish an official map for forest boundaries and concessions. Much more still needs to be done.
Indonesia's top reform-minded decision makers can turn this crisis into an opportunity to overhaul the way different government agencies work together nationally and locally within provinces and districts.
Investment in a well-trained, professional cadre of police officers, local prosecutors, tax officials, and forestry, agricultural, planning and mapping specialists is urgently needed.
The booming oil palm and forestry sectors generate ample tax revenue to more than cover the costs of investment in this enhanced capacity.
Local communities should be empowered to manage and invest in protecting their forest lands.
In recent years, the Ministry of Forestry has worked to turn more land over to the communities themselves, encouraging smaller-scale, locally-owned forest management.
In several places, such as community-managed teak plantations in Central Java, the results have been positive. Recent research by the Centre for International Forestry Research, an international research organisation based in Bogor, shows that when communities' rights to manage forest land are recognised by governments, the rates of forest clearing usually go down.
Based on this experience, Indonesia would do well to accelerate efforts to grant local communities a larger portion of the national forest estate.
Finally, growth in the palm oil and pulp and paper industry is critical for Indonesia to create jobs, economic growth, and tax revenues. According to recent analysis by WRI and partners, there is more than enough already-cleared land in Indonesia to support plantation expansion for many years to come.
Efforts are now needed to reduce the red tape and bureaucracy that companies must work through to gain permission to plant on such degraded land.
How can Singapore help?
Some of the companies linked with the fires have strong links to Singapore.
The ownership and legal structures of these groups are complex. Singapore should do all that it can to assist the Indonesian government with efforts to understand who ultimately controls the companies and can be held legally accountable for any crimes that may have been committed.
Singapore can also explore a range of options for legal sanction and penalty within its own jurisdiction in relation to harm done to the people and economy of the country.
Such steps will all help to send a signal that those who commit forest crimes in Indonesia are more likely to be held accountable in the future, which in turn will help reduce the risk of another haze crisis in years to come.
Dr Nigel Sizer leads the forests team at World Resources Institute, an independent, global think tank with offices in Washington DC and around the world.
The Institute's analysis of the Sumatra fires in English is on the WRI website at http://insights.wri.org/news/2013/06/wri-releases-updated-data-fires-indonesia
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 26, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/