Indonesia's Parliament unanimously agreed to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, in a move officials hailed as a new chapter in the country's efforts to take a stronger lead in tackling an annual problem that has irked residents in affected areas and neighbouring countries.
"This is the right step for Indonesia to show that it is serious in addressing the transboundary haze caused by forest and plantation fires," Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya told Parliament yesterday. Ratification, he stressed, would benefit Indonesia the most as it would better protect citizens from the negative effects of forest fires and safeguard the country's natural resources.
All nine parties in the outgoing Parliament yesterday backed a Bill to ratify the agreement, 12 years after Indonesia signed it alongside the other nine Asean members - but failed to win approval for it from MPs until recently.
The Bill is expected to be formally signed into law by the President in the coming weeks, and after that an instrument of ratification will be deposited with the Asean secretary-general.
The House's reluctance in the past became a sticking point last year, when haze levels reached record highs in Riau as well as Malaysia and Singapore.
MPs had felt certain clauses could infringe the country's sovereignty, leaving Indonesia in the awkward position of being the only Asean member to hold out.
But the government has clarified that though the treaty obliged Indonesia to be responsible for responding rapidly to fires and cooperating with its neighbours, sovereignty was not negotiable.
Instead, the pact strengthened Indonesia's existing regulations and policies in dealing with fires.
"These responsibilities do not come with sanctions. Any differences among us (Asean members) will be settled amicably through discussions and consultation," Dr Balthasar added yesterday.
"Indonesia can make use of the human resources and equipment available within Asean countries," Mr Milton Pakpahan, a Democrat MP who helped to push the Bill through, told Parliament.
Singapore welcomed the Indonesian Parliament's decision to ratify the treaty, the Environment and Water Resources Ministry said in a statement yesterday.
It also said the ratification was timely, given the recent spike in the number of hot spots in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
"Singapore looks forward to closer cooperation with the Indonesian government and our Asean partners to tackle this recurrent problem," the ministry added.
Under the terms of the treaty, countries have to cooperate in taking measures to prevent, monitor and mitigate the haze by controlling the sources of fires, in exchanging information and technology, and in helping one another manage outbreaks.
Indonesia's Environment Ministry said yesterday that it had already begun taking measures in line with the Asean agreement.
Indonesia will also be starting cloud-seeding in the coming days to induce rain to douse forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.