Indonesia, Malaysia drawing up haze agreement

This article was first published on Sept 25, 2014

Indonesia and Malaysia are working on a bilateral pact to better tackle the annual transboundary haze, according to officials from both countries who said the tie-up would focus on better fire prevention and tougher penalties for open burning on peatland.

Discussions for the memorandum of understanding (MOU) began a month ago on the sidelines of an Asean inter-ministerial meeting, and picked up pace after Indonesia's Parliament finally agreed last week to ratify an Asean haze pact.

An aide to Malaysian Environment Minister Palanivel Govindasamay said both countries had "basically agreed on" the pact. But both sides declined to say when they might sign off on it.

"We are looking at exchange of information and experiences but, importantly, establishing joint research focusing on fire prevention, not just combating a blaze," Mr Arief Yuwono, Indonesia's Deputy Minister for Environmental Degradation Control and Climate Change, told The Straits Times yesterday.

The aide to Mr Palanivel added that the information being exchanged would include details on many Malaysian companies operating in Indonesia, especially those in the palm oil industry.

The pact would also raise the fines for those caught carrying out open burning on peatland, the root cause of forest fires that spark off the annual haze. Officials declined to give specific figures for the new penalties.

A joint steering committee will be set up in Jakarta as part of the MOU to oversee its implementation, said Mr Arief, adding that he hoped the pact would also address the underlying socio-economic causes of the haze problem.

"We will be talking to local governments and looking at how to manage land from a social-economic view," he said. "We want to incorporate the local wisdom and use it as part of the solution to reduce conflicts and burning."

The agreement comes as fires continue to rage across Sumatra and Kalimantan. Indonesian officials have rapidly mobilised resources in recent weeks to douse the fires through cloud seeding and water bombing.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's top producers of palm oil, and soaring demand has seen land being rapidly cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, even on peatlands.

Peat fires, which can burn for months or even years, emit high levels of carbon dioxide and are largely behind the choking haze affecting the region.

There are clear sanctions against the illegal clearing of land by burning, but the rules are poorly implemented and enforced.

"On Padang Island, Sumatra, bulldozers are, at this moment, continuing to clear forests in deep peatlands," said Mr Bustar Maitar, global head of Indonesia Forest Campaign in Greenpeace, a non-governmental organisation focusing on the environment.

Separately, Mr Arief disclosed that Singapore was in the "final phase" of discussions to revive its anti-haze cooperation with Jambi province. Singapore signed a two-year agreement with the fire-prone Indonesian province in 2007 to help it better monitor hot spots and curb fires.

"The substance of it is all right," said Mr Arief. "We are now awaiting clearance from Indonesia's Foreign Affairs as it involves a bilateral agreement."

Additional reporting by Shannon Teoh in Kuala Lumpur