At a public forum held in Kuala Lumpur recently to discuss my book, The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage, one audience member made an interesting observation. He said that the haze was a blessing in disguise, as it shone light on other related issues that may otherwise have escaped regional attention.
What he meant by that statement was that the Indonesian fires produce haze that travels across national boundaries and affect up to six Southeast Asian countries with differing levels of severity. This is the transboundary effect of the fires, and has caused increased awareness and concern in various countries beyond Indonesian shores. He opined that, if the haze was confined to Indonesian borders, awareness of the issue and other problems related to the fires that were not transboundary in nature may not have garnered much interest outside the country.
As a researcher who has spent the past decade working on haze, I found this observation to be extremely perceptive and quite novel. Transboundary haze is indeed the reason why most Southeast Asians are so concerned about the Indonesian fires. After decades of haze, the media attention, civil society activism and academic research on haze has increasingly made the totality of the issues related to the fires and haze clearer to the regional community. Essentially, people around the region now understand that the Indonesian fires are a complex issue, and likewise, any potential solutions must be multi-faceted.
The haze-producing fires in Indonesia are closely related to land use, or indeed, land misuse. Three localised land use issues that have received exposure beyond Indonesian borders over the years are community conflicts, peatland use, and habitat encroachment.
Indonesia’s vast and heterogeneous population has also meant that there are various communities spread across the land with very particular customary practises and understandings about land ownership. However, these native customary rights (NCR) are not formally recognised by regional and central authorities. This becomes a problem when land use and development licenses are given out to logging and plantation companies by these authorities with little or no concern for NCR over land. As these communities are often underprivileged and uneducated, they are unlikely to be able to pursue legal recourse over these blatant land grabs.
Some who are more accepting of their fate resort to burning these lands prior to corporate takeover to prove their ownership. By burning the land, they attempt to claim at least some compensation from the oncoming companies. Others who are more adamant will purposely set fire to established plantations as a form of frustration and revenge upon what they consider ‘trespassers’ on their land. Especially sinister is when plantation companies or their contractors purposely set fire to the land as a cheap, fast and easy way to clear the land in preparation for planting, but blame the fires on neighbouring villagers. These ground level conflicts contribute significantly to the regional haze.
While authorities often view these activities as criminal, others are hard pressed to blame these local communities. Civil society organisations like Rainforest Action Network, Forest Peoples Program, and Friends of the Earth actively highlight these stories from the ground. Some of the most well-documented community conflicts involve the Dayaks who live off the land in the forests of Kalimantan, and the Kapa and Sasak peoples in West Sumatra. The stories uncovered by such organisations make it clear how these communities are actually victims of circumstance. And of course, the density of the haze is nearest to the source, which means that however bad the haze is in Malaysia and Singapore, it is exponentially worse at these fire epicentres. These organisations often link the plight of local communities to regional haze as a way to highlight suffering of the larger regional community.
Other times, less populated lands are licensed for conversion from their original state to other land uses. While these licenses do not cause as many community conflicts, there are other localised problems that arise. This is especially so when the lands involved are peatlands, swampy lands near rivers and oceans. Indonesia is home to about 60 per cent of the world’s tropical peatlands. They are rich in carbon because the waterlogged conditions halt the process of decomposition. Because of this, peatlands are excellent carbon sinks.
However, when these lands are drained for plantation development, they dry out very quickly and become very fire-prone. Accidental fires, from branches rubbing together to create a spark or stray cigarette butts, or intentional fires set by plantations as a cheap, fast and easy way to clear the land in preparation for planting, releases this trapped carbon into the atmosphere in huge amounts. These particular types of peatfires burn ‘dirty’, releasing particularly thick, sooty and heavy smoke into the atmosphere. This type of smoke is hardy enough to travel long distances, and it is estimated that up to 80 per cent of transboundary haze is from peatfire smoke.
There is a strong link between peatland use and transboundary haze. As long as peatlands continue to be cleared for plantations, the region will continue to suffer from haze. In Indonesia, there are many policies that essentially make it illegal to develop peatlands, due to its precious and sensitive nature. However, well-connected companies are often able to gain licenses to develop peatlands anyway, usually by skipping the requirement for AMDALs (Environmental Impact Assessments).
Symbiotic relationships often exist between these companies and their connections at the various administrative levels, known simply as patron-client relations. These companies often seek out peatlands because of their relatively unpopulated status, saving them the trouble of dealing with angry local communities. Peatlands are also home to many species of valuable timber, which these companies can log and sell to raise start-up funds. In return, local administrators stand to benefit from the lucrative revenue that they can collect from the plantation output, often palm oil. At the central level, such plantations support the central government’s agribusiness and developmental goals, developing so-called ‘idle’ lands, providing job opportunities and also bringing in foreign exchange in the form of exports. Therefore, both the clients – plantation companies – and patrons – government agencies – have vested interest in the continued access to peatlands.
Before the palm oil boom in Indonesia in the early 1990s, haze was a much rarer occurrence and had a much more localised reach, only sometimes spilling over the neighbouring countries. However, since Indonesia began opening up large swathes of land to palm oil plantations , the haze became a truly regional and transboundary issue. Around 25 per cent of all palm oil plantations in Indonesia today are located on peatlands. Regional organisations like People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze) (http://pmhaze.org/) based in Singapore, Malaysia’s Global Environment Centre and Sawit Watch in Indonesia have avidly highlighted this link between unsustainable peatland use and regional haze. PM Haze in particular has been using its regional reach to encourage consumers in Singapore and Malaysia to purchase and use only ‘haze-free’ products, under its hard-hitting tagline, ‘We Breathe What We Buy’.
Indonesia is a megadiverse country, as it is home to a large number of the Earth's species, including many species unique to this country. Its forests are home to various endangered species, most notably megafauna like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. Local communities living close to the forests live in harmony with these creatures, but rapid commercial land clearance and forest fires drastically affect this delicate balance and threaten the survival of these precious species in various ways.
The physical effects of haze on these orangutans are similar to the effects on humans. They cough, suffer from breathing difficulties, fevers and diarrhoea. When fires occur nearby their habitat, orangutans are forced to flee through the forest to stay ahead of the fires and look for water, often leaving them exhausted and dehydrated. Some who are not fast enough suffer burns, and those who don’t survive sometimes leave behind defenceless young. Some poachers also use the opportunity of these fires to trap fleeing orang-utans for illegal wildlife trade.
Sumatran tigers move fluidly between peatlands and other types of forest, and so suffer in similar ways. Tesso Nilo National Park in in Riau Province, Sumatra, is one of the last remaining refuges for the majority of the surviving Sumatran tigers, estimated at around fifty individuals by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). However, encroachment into this protected park has been rampant, and it is estimated that as much as 47,000 hectares of the park has been cleared to make way for plantations. And, as more fires steadily shrink the natural habitat of orang-utans, tigers and other endangered creatures into even smaller pockets, their long-term survival and reproductive capabilities are even further threatened.
WWF, Greenpeace and also local organisations like Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) Malaysia have often tapped into transboundary haze publicity to also highlight the plight of these majestic creatures to a broader audience. Malaysian-based groups like FOTO are particularly passionate as orang-utan wellbeing in Indonesia is closely related to concerns over local orang-utan populations.
Holistic solutions needed
The irony is that many plantation companies implicated in community conflicts, peatland use and habitat encroachment are Malaysian and Singaporean companies. It seems almost poetic justice that Malaysia and Singapore should be among the worst affected by this transboundary haze. Palm oil in particular is a very important economic sector in both Indonesia and Malaysia, with both countries producing about 90 percent of global oil palm supply. And in addition to their overseas investments, Singapore is also an important player for palm oil refinery. Therefore, there is substantial vested interest by all three countries to ensure the survival of this lucrative industry.
In my book I explore how this underlying interest seems to be a stumbling block for government and industry-based efforts. For example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been the coordination point for government efforts over the haze for several decades now. However, as an organisation founded primarily to accelerate economic growth in the region, collective efforts at this level suffer from the tendency to place economic growth over social development and environmental protection. At the national level in Indonesia, Joko Widodo has breathed fresh air into the discussion on fires and haze, but even he has acknowledged the huge administrative challenge ahead of him, indicating the need for at least three years to make inroads on the problem.
In terms of industry efforts, the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) shows signs of promise in encouraging sustainability in plantation practises, but is now threatened by competition from local initiatives like the Indonesian and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO and MSPO) standards. Overall, the industry is coming under increased regional pressure as Southeast Asians not only have to contend with haze year after year, but are also becoming more aware and concerned about the localised issues related to forest fires. Initiatives from within civil society such as PM Haze’s campaign have successfully mobilised consumers in the region to ‘vote with their wallet’.
Simply put, the regional haze ‘challenge’ is no longer just about ensuring the skies over Malaysia and Singapore are clear blue all year round. It is now also about community justice, responsible land use and wildlife conservation. It is definitely a bigger challenge, but a more holistic one which will hopefully lead to more lasting solutions in the long run. And we have the transboundary haze to thank for that.
Helen Varkkey is a senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya. In addition to transboundary haze, her other research interests include ASEAN regionalism, agribusiness and environmental politics.
Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016