Monday, July 8, 2013

Why is South-East Asia's annual haze so hard to deal with?

A FOUL white smoke has engulfed parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. On June 21st Malaysia declared a state of emergency in parts of its southern states, after the Air Pollution Index there continued to rise precipitously. In Singapore the pollution overtook previous records set in 1997 (when it affected six countries and perhaps 70m people). This "haze" has become an almost annual occurrence in South-East Asia, starting in every dry season. 

Why is it so difficult to deal with?

Slash-and-burn farming is largely to blame for the haze. It is the cheapest way to clear clogged woodland, with many villagers unable to buy or hire expensive earth-moving machines to make their land arable. At least three laws in Indonesia prohibit the burning and clearing of forests. But these have never been seriously enforced by the government. Hardly anyone has been successfully prosecuted over the years for lighting fires. And as Singaporeans and Malaysians have taken pains to point out, Indonesia was the only member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations not to have ratified a 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Most of the burning is concentrated this year in the Riau province on the east coast of Sumatra. The province is Indonesia's most productive palm-oil producer, producing 5m tonnes a year. About half of the land on which the fires are burning in Sumatra belongs to big palm-oil conglomerates, many of them Malaysian-owned. Most have strict no-burning policies, but have been accused of starting fires (or paying others to light them on their behalf) in the past, in order to clear more of their concessions for palm oil. Yuyun Indradi, a campaigner at Greenpeace, says that it is common for large firms to expand by paying locals to set fires along the sides of their concessions. But palm oil's economic importance to Indonesia, a relatively poor country, guarantees its protection. 

Last year exports totalled $17.9 billion, second only to coal. Some 5m people live off the industry.

It is hard to see how the situation will improve. Corruption does not help: this year's disaster was preceded by the arrest of Rusli Zainal, the governor of Riau since 2003. He was charged with giving out illegal logging permits to finance his re-election campaign. Conflicting maps and the confusing ownership structures of the palm-oil conglomerates also make it hard to enforce rules regarding farming and forestry. And underlying all of this is the fact that much of the area now burning in Riau is peat wetland, the result of years of deforestation. Peat can go down to a depth of 30m in Sumatra and is highly combustible, with fires smouldering underground long after a fire has been extinguished on the surface. So the fires continue to linger invisibly, as do the dark commercial and political motives that also sustain them. The Economist

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