Indonesia’s Weather Forecast: Hazy, with a Chance of Clear Skies

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By Di-Hoa Le and Courtney Weatherby: 

Hazardous levels of haze from Indonesian forest fires have become an annual occurrence for neighboring Southeast Asian countries. El Nino weather patterns like the one currently prevailing in Southeast Asia greatly exacerbate the problem by sweeping the haze into neighboring countries, especially Malaysia and Singapore. The Indonesian parliament’s passage of the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution on September 16, 2014 is a major step forward, but implementation will remain a major challenge as president-elect Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi”, assumes the presidency in October.

Indonesian haze originates primarily from forest fires burning in Sumatra’s Riau province and Western Kalimantan, where pulp and palm oil companies use illegal slash-and-burn tactics in order to clear forest land quickly and cheaply. Deforestation contributes to carbon emissions by both eliminating the forests that act as carbon sinks and leaving behind highly flammable peat bogs. Peat is a major source of global carbon sequestration, so when it catches on fire that carbon is released and worsens greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. Indonesia is globally the largest source of CO2 from degraded peat bogs, which make up 60% of its total emissions annually.

Haze generated by the deliberate burning of forests is an increasingly hazardous and debilitating nontraditional security threat for the region. In recent decades, toxic blankets of haze have triggered everything from school and office closings and cancelled flights to local state of emergencies.Haze can cost neighboring countries hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in productivity, efficiency, and economic growth, as well as being a recognized cause of health problems and shortened life expectancy. The disastrous 1997-98 fires were estimated to cost the region up to $9.3 billion US dollars. The recent 2013 fires cost Singapore an estimated $1 billion a week, and likely did further damage in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Prompted by the 1997 blaze, ASEAN drafted the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a legally binding agreement on cooperating for preventing, monitoring and mitigating transboundary haze. All ten ASEAN countries signed the agreement in 2002, but domestic gridlock and concerns over the subordination of Indonesian sovereignty to regional interests delayed Indonesia’s ratification until this year.

Indonesia’s slow response and hesitancy to cooperate in addressing the problem has created friction with its neighbors.  During the deadly fires of 1997, Indonesia refused Malaysian firefighters entry into the country to help put out the fires until  intense regional and international pressure pushed the government to allow them access.* In 2013 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formally apologizedfor the haze after Malaysia was forced to declare a state of emergency due to high pollution levels and Singaporean officials publicly commented on Indonesia’s failure to address the issue.

Haze is a domestically sensitive topic due to the entrenchment of vested interests in pulp and palm oil companies in the political landscape, a lack of clarity over land-rights between these companies and local farmers, and concerns over sovereignty.  The decentralization of power after the fall of the Suharto regime has been a major factor in allowing politically powerful local interests with ties to large multinational investors in timber and plantation agriculture to circumvent national haze policy. 

During his time in office, President Yudhoyono has adopted numerous policies to address Indonesia’s haze and deforestation challenges: in 2009 he pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions, by either 26% under a “business as usual” scenario or 41% with international aid, by 2020. In 2011, he declared that no new permits for logging or other uses of primary forests and peatlands—essentially a moratorium on logging, and in 2013 extended the moratorium through 2015.  Yudhoyono’s policies have had little measurable impact: a 2014 study reports that Indonesia’s deforestation rate has surpassed that of Brazil and that Indonesia lost the most primary forest of any country in 2012.

Despite these pressures, all nine parties in Indonesia’s parliament finally ratified the 2002 ASEAN agreement on September 16, 2014, only one day after air quality index levels in Singapore and Malaysia again reached hazardous levels due Indonesian haze. This step may finally kickstart movement, as the Agreement requires members to strengthen domestic policies on forest fires and haze and increase cooperation efforts with other ASEAN countries but resistance from local and commercial interests will not be easily overcome.

Thus Joko Widodo, winner of the recent presidential election, will inherit both the benefits of a legal framework and parliamentary support as well as institutional obstacles to controlling haze. In an August interview he emphasized that the main obstacle is a lack of political will, given that local authorities are fully aware of who the culprits are. President-elect Jokowi clearly knows that to address the issue successfully, he will need to find a way to motivate authorities at both the national and local levels to implement the laws. While he indicates that he will prioritize communication with local authorities and the public, real change will require legal reform to allow for greater enforcement.

Although Parliament’s passage of the ASEAN Agreement is a positive sign, Jokowi’s coalition does not command a majority in the House of Representatives and faces opposition from defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto’s coalition. The challenge for Jokowi will therefore be to work with both his own supporters and the opposition parties in parliament to enact more effective and more readily enforceable environmental reform. 

Jokowi’s strength rests in what endeared him to the public in the first place—listening to the people, advocating transparency and accountability, and pushing for compromises based on national needs rather than partisan politics. Without continuing international pressures to motivate both sides, it is questionable whether Jokowi will be able to bring both sides of parliament into agreement on legal reform. It is thus vital that the international community, Indonesia’s affected neighbors, and overseas development partners continue to meaningfully engage with the Indonesia to address haze. 

*Nguitragool, Paruedee. Negotiating the Haze Treaty. Asian Survey, Vol. 51, No. 2 (March/April 2011). University of California Press, pp. 364.

Follow Stimson’s Southeast Asia program and the Stimson Center on twitter.

Photo credit: Wakx via flickr

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