Alex Lautensach: A hazy outlook on environmental co-operation

By Guest Columnists

Once again the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, with its two major population centres of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, are experiencing first-hand the significance of human security in this age of worldwide environmental destruction.

On the neighbouring Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo large tracts of bush are burning and the resulting smoke, under the lack of persistent winds during the current inter-monsoon period, has created a dense particulate acrid haze over the peninsula.

It renders breathing difficult and causes inflammations of the respiratory tract and eyes. Children and the elderly are officially encouraged to stay indoors to minimise exposure.

Many of the fires are deliberately started during small farming operations, as well as by palm oil and timber plantation companies who employ traditional slash-and-burn techniques despite a legal ban. Other fires are now burning out of control or are claimed to have started accidentally.

On Friday the environment ministers of Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia met to discuss the problem.

[They agreed to create a panel to oversee implementation of anti-pollution measures, and to meet every three months to reassess the situation - ed].

Indonesia and the Philippines are the only two of the ten Asean members not to have ratified the 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Signatories gain access to a 'haze fund' to help them with fighting fires and the seeding of clouds.

Indonesian officials, particularly the Indonesian welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie who is in charge of the haze problem, blame the forces of nature, regional poverty and inadequate infrastructure for their failure to come to grips with the problem.

The Indonesian government has pledged $17 million towards mitigation of the problem and apologised to the nations affected.

Judging from the lack of progress on this issue over the last ten years, it will be up to the weather gods to clear the air.

* Dr Alex Lautensach, a senior researcher with the Human Security Institute, Auckland, is currently visiting with Kebangsaan University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Readers' Views

I live in Borneo and have been across the border into Kalimantan and seen fires and a lot of crop burning over the years and have come to realise that much of the burning is not carried out by crop farmers and the poor people of Indonesia but by large multi-national companies who are clearing land at a very fast rate to plant palm oil.

We never had this problem prior to 1995. Only in the last 4-5 years have many Malaysians who are in the crop business come to realise where/why these fires are being created and how easy it is to burn jungles rather than using manpower to clear them. That is is a human problem rather than a need for subsistence farming by the poor.

I just wish the media and people in general would realise there is far more the Indonesian government can do if they really want to, but don't expect them to do much because the Indonesian government needs to overtake Malaysia as the number one palm oil producer and many of the ministers in the Indonesian government and the larger companies in Indonesia have interests in the palm oil industry.
- - - posted 9.09pm Oct 16, 2006 by Avtar Singh Sandhu

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