Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 15 August 2005

Asean needs to act on haze crisis

The haze crisis reflects the failure of Asean to tackle its most obvious and critical environmental problem.  There are plenty of Asean agreements and action plans and meetings, but they all amounted to nothing when the fires and haze started.  The Asean machinery must work better to make those responsible accountable.


The haze crisis is a sad reflection of failed Asean attempts to prevent and handle the most    visibly damaging environment problem in our region.

There is no lack of action plans and even treaties in Asean.  There are numerous detailed guidelines.  And countless meetings on the haze, involving expert groups and Ministers.

But when it came to the crunch again, in the past week, there was no political will and no effective cooperation mechanisms to have these find plans implemented.

The main fault lies with Indonesia.  It has up to now not ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.  But there is also a big revealed weakness in Asean, as a political and technical body.

Last week’s crisis went beyond the normal recent annual event (the haze has been going on since at least 1991) of just waiting a few days before a mild haze would blow over.

It was the worst haze crisis since 1997, when raging forest fires in Indonesia sent a pall of pollution over the region for several weeks, at a cost of almost US10 billion in economic losses, and more losses in terms of people’s health and inconvenience.

According to news reports, there were at least seven deaths attributed to the haze in the Selangor area, while schools and offices had to close.  By weekend the heavy haze had spread to Penang.

Indonesia’s response was very poor.  Reports and photographs of fire-fighters manually trying to put out some fires did not generate confidence either that the authorities are taking the problem seriously, that they have the technical resources, or that they really welcome help from Malaysia or others to stamp out the fires.

As usual the small farmers are being blamed.  But numerous past reports have pointed out that it is the plantations that have been responsible.  The Indonesian environment group Walhi pinpointed large oil palm plantations that prefer to clear land by burning to avoid the cost of heavy equipment or hiring workers as the main source.

They are aided by a 1999 forestry law allowing companies to use fires to clear land if they get a permit.  Permits are easy to get.  Corruption, collusion and law enforcement problems add to the brew of factors that cause this annual farce of burning and haze.

It is sad and shameful that such a strong grouping like Asean is unable to solve such a longstanding and obvious problem among its important neighbours.

The regional efforts are there, but they just don’t produce results when and where it matters most – when the burning starts and the haze appears.

There is the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed by ten countries in June 2002 and that came into force in November 2003 when the sixth country ratified it.  As of July 2005, seven countries have ratified (Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) but not the most important country, Indonesia, the main source of the pollution.

An Asean secretariat press release on the signing proudly proclaims that it is the first such regional arrangement in the world, which binds a group of contiguous states to tackle transboundary haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires.   The Agreement obliges the countries to co-operate in implementing measures to prevent, monitor, and mitigate haze pollution by controlling sources of land and forest fires, establishing early warning systems, exchanging information and technology, and providing mutual assistance.   Countries are also obliged to respond promptly to a request for information sought by a state or affected by such haze when the pollution originates from within their territories, and to take legal, administrative and other measures to implement their obligations.   They shall also facilitate the transit through their territories of personnel, equipment and materials involved or used in firefighting, search and rescue and other activities requested by a third Party.   The Haze Agreement provides for the establishment of an Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control to facilitate cooperation and coordination in managing the impact of land and forest fires, in particular haze pollution.   The Agreement text has been placed on the Asean website. Unfortunately it cannot be downloaded.  A sign appears that “the file is damaged and could not be repaired.”   Ironically this sign could apply to the implementation of the agreement itself.   There is also an Asean Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP), for which the Agreement provides legal basis.  It can be found at the Asean webpage   It is a fine plan, agreed to by all Asean countries in 1998.   Activities include weather forecast and early warning measures, strict enforcement of existing laws and enactment of new laws to regulate open burning, training of prosecution and law enforcement officers, development of preventive tools such as GIS database and fire danger rating systems.

             Under the Plan, each Asean country is to develop National Plans to prevent and mitigate land and forest fires, including the prohibition of open burning and the strict control of slash-and-burn practices during the dry period.

The countries are to formulate air quality laws to prohibit open burning; strictly enforce laws; implement air quality monitoring and reporting regimes, and set up surveillance on local sources of emissions, establish a national task force to develop strategies and response plans to deal with fires and smoke haze.

They would set up guidelines and support services to discourage activities which can lead

to land and forest fires; operating procedures for the early mobilisation of resources to prevent the spread of fires and methods for the disposal of agricultural waste.

At the regional level, the Action Plan aimed to strengthen the region's early warning and  monitoring system to provide an alert of the first outbreak of land and forest fires, an assessment of meteorological conditions, a prediction of the spread of smoke haze, a systematic tracking of the control and spread of fires and haze, and data to support enforcement action.

The Plan also includes a programme to strengthen the fire-fighting capability of individual countries, and technical assistance including forest fire-fighting equipment, aircraft such as water bombers, operating procedures to deploy fire-fighting resources for regional fire-fighting operations; and a mechanism in each country to provide regular updates to the Haze Technical Task Force on progress made in efforts to fight the fires.

The updates would include the number of hot spots and their locations, analysis of fire types, problems encountered, adequacy of deployed resources, and effectiveness of enforcement and ground operations.

After the action plan was adopted, there have been even more detailed guidelines and reports, such as the guidelines for zero burning, the guidelines for controlled burning practices, an Asean peatland management initiative, and a detailed book, Fire, Smoke and Haze—The Asean Response Strategy which the Asean secretariat proudly launched in 2001.

There have been numerous meetings held by many Asean groups on haze-related matters. There is the Haze Technical Task Force which meets twice a year.  There have been 16 meetings of an Asean working groups on firefighting arrangements for Sumatra and Borneo, the latest held in March this year.   There have been workshops on implementing guidelines on Asean policy on zero burning.

There have been regular meetings of Asean Environment Ministers to discuss the haze.  At the 10th such ministerial meeting held in Cambodia in March 2003, they issued a 4-page press release resolving to “continue their efforts to tackle comprehensively, and on a concerted and collaborative basis, the transboundary haze pollution problem that has plagued ASEAN periodically in recent years.

The Ministers also noted that a subregional Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) among Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore had been developed for coordination, communication and disaster relief.

They noted that guidelines for implementing the zero-burn policy will be published soon, as well as guidelines on controlled burning, where zero-burn techniques could not be practiced, especially by smallholders, farmers and shifting cultivators. Indonesia would take the lead in preparing the guidelines.

These many activities and statements can be found in the Asean haze webpage on

The problems are known, the declarations made, the action plans laid out, the training done.  But the burning continues year after year, and the haze keeps coming back.  This year it is bad.  When will it end and will it be worse next time around?

What is required is Indonesia’s participation in the Asean Haze Agreement. And a strengthening of the agreement by including an enforcement and liability clause. Those responsible for the fires should pay damages to those who suffer the consequences of the haze.  This “bite” is needed to ensure that all the declarations and action plans have effect..