Asean eager to make success of anti-haze treaty

But environmentalists doubt it can be enforced by Jakarta which has done little to control forest fires.

Asean countries, fresh from signing a landmark deal to battle haze, made clear yesterday that they would not pay lip service to the treaty, with several member states riding on the momentum to come up with new initiatives to fight cross-border pollution.

But environmentalists doubted whether the treaty would have any effect on Jakarta, which because of problems of corruption and law enforcement, has done so little to address problems of forest and land fires that choked the region with haze over the last decade.

This did not, however, quell regional optimism in a binding agreement, signed in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, that for the first time sets out the obligations of member states and details the preventive measures and responses expected of them. Member states were eager to set things in motion even though the treaty had yet to be ratified by individual parliaments. For the agreement to come into force, six out of the 10 Asean countries had to ratify it.

Thailand, which has had its fair share of the haze problem over the years, was working out contingency plans to prevent forest fires during the dry season.

Sources said that the measures are believed to include improvement in irrigation methods, enlarging water-catchment areas, and imposing a ban on illegal logging and encroachment by villagers into the forests.

Bangkok was also expected to streamline government agencies to better handle the problem in a coordinated manner.

A Thai official told The Straits Times: ‘In the past, haze was seen as an Indonesian problem. There is growing recognition

in Asean now, including Indonesia, that it is a problem with far-reaching regional impact.’

That appears to be reflected in some of the measures outlined in the treaty.

Under the agreement, a coordinating body – the Asean Coordinating Centre for Trans-boundary Haze Pollution Control – will be set up to monitor air pollution.

The signatories also agreed to help the transit of personnel and equipment through their territories to help combat haze-inducing fires in other countries.

Countries where the pollution originates must ‘respond promptly’ to requests for information and consultations sought by another country threatened by the haze.

Ms Rosnani Ibarahim, the director of Malaysia’s Environment Department, said Asean countries are serious about the pact after suffering through the haze crisis in 1997 and 1998.

Perhaps an indication of the seriousness of the discussions was the number of unconventional ideas thrown up at the two-day ministerial meeting.

The Philippines suggested the formation of a regional ‘quick-action squadron’ of fire fighters that could be quickly sent to hot spots.

Indonesia, meanwhile, is looking into peat soil research, as its forest fires sometimes lasted for weeks due to the presence of a deep layer of peat on the forest floor.

Environmentalists in Jakarta maintained, however, that it was unlikely the Indonesian government would play ball.

‘The treaty is necessary for high-level leverage against the government but in practical terms it is not significant,’ said Mr Agus Setyoso, the Deputy Director for Forestry Programmes from the World Wide Fund for Nature.

He added that it would not be effective on the ground given that Jakarta still had not met many of the requirements such as supplying equipment and funding positions for the 1997 Regional Haze Action Plan.

Local forestry departments in both Sumatra and Kalimantan admit they do not have the tools or the people to fight large-scale fires.

Another problem is law enforcement. Plantation and industrial forest owners use fires illegally to clear land and are rarely prosecuted.

Although Indonesia has access to satellite mapping showing fire locations, under existing Indonesian laws no fire starter can be prosecuted until the police have proven that the fire was deliberately lit by the landowner.

Indonesia’s representative to the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Ms Liana Bratasida, who is a deputy minister for environment conservation, said that Jakarta will ‘slowly come around to doing things’.

‘It will involve a mindset change for the government, bureaucrats and people that start the fires,’ she said.

‘We will have to do what other Asean countries are doing whether we like it or not.’

Singapore’s Environment Minister Lim Swee Say, voicing optimism that the treaty will work, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur: ‘It is a clear expression of the political will and commitment in wanting to strengthen our partnership within Asean to prevent the regional haze from happening again.’

With reports from Reme Ahmad in Kuala Lumpur, Edward Tang in Bangkok and Marianne Kearney in Jakarta.

CLEARING THE AIR

During the Asean Ministerial Meeting on Haze in Kuala Lumpur, member nations agreed on these proposals to tackle the pollution problem

To ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed on Monday as soon as possible.

To agree on a set of interim arrangements to conduct cross-border fire and haze-disaster simulation exercises among some member countries.

To intensify early-warning efforts and surveillance programmes, and consider banning open burning and strict enforcement of controlled burning in anticipation of a slight to moderate haze between July and October due to the El Nino phenomenon.

To set up sub-regional firefighting arrangements in other areas besides those in Sumatra and Borneo.

To appreciate support provided by international organisations to its efforts in preventing and monitoring forest fires.

To urge the World Summit on Sustainable Development to demonstrate strong political commitment to combat land and forest fires worldwide.

To call on the Global Environment Facility to continue supporting its regional efforts in addressing transboundary haze pollution through a full-sized regional programme.

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