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Just a week after Southeast Asia hailed “substantive progress” against cross-border air pollution, Singapore and parts of Malaysia are again being blanketed by smog from forest fires in Indonesia.
The problem, known euphemistically as “the haze”, raises fresh questions about the effectiveness of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose leaders will hold a summit in Hanoi from October 28-29.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo phoned his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa on Friday to press for action and offer help in extinguishing forest fires largely set by farmers in the vast island of Sumatra to clear land for cultivation.
Malaysian officials also vented their frustration at the persistent problem, which analysts said highlights weakness both within individual ASEAN countries and the bloc itself in enforcing domestic laws and regional pacts.
“This just shows that ASEAN must move from talk to action,” said Joko Arif, Southeast Asia forest team leader at environmental group Greenpeace.
“ASEAN has been talking for more than 10 years on how to combat forest fires and haze, but I think more concrete action needs to be done,” he told AFP.
For its part, Indonesia should effectively implement laws that ban the use of fire to clear land and be more transparent in giving out information on the location and size of the burning activities, Arif said.
Haze has been on ASEAN’s agenda since 1997-1998, when a choking pall of smoke caused by fires on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan wafted across Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
More than nine million hectares (22 million acres) of land were burnt, costing the region an estimated nine billion dollars in economic, social and environmental losses, according to ASEAN.
In 2002, the grouping adopted the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to coordinate efforts to fight the fires, often caused by slash-and-burn practices by farmers and companies as they clear massive tracts of land for products like palm oil.
Only Indonesia has yet to ratify the treaty.
ASEAN also boasts a Regional Haze Action Plan, the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy and a Panel of ASEAN Experts on Fire and Haze Assessment and Coordination.
Yet the forest fires recur every year and the smoke continues to afflict Indonesia’s neighbours with varying degrees of seriousness.
The latest fires on Sumatra this month triggered health alerts in Singapore and parts of Malaysia.
“ASEAN really has to transcend its reputation as a talk shop,” said Rafael Senga, the Asia Pacific energy policy chief at World Wildlife Fund International.
“We all know that ASEAN has achieved some headway in some areas as an organisation. But for issues that have a domestic character like deforestation, ASEAN is basically toothless,” Senga told AFP.
“They can issue communique after communique every year but at the end of the day, it still depends on the national governments involved to do something about it.”
Senga said that Indonesia’s drive to significantly increase its palm oil production is leading to massive deforestation, while Indonesian officials often blame poor farmers for the fires.
The region is susceptible to haze pollution because 60 percent of the world’s tropical peatlands are in Southeast Asia, covering around 24 million hectares, with Indonesia accounting for 70 percent, ASEAN’s website said.
When set on fire, dry peatland can burn for weeks because the blaze can be extinguished on the surface but continue to burn underground.
Mely Caballero-Anthony, a Singapore-based expert on non-traditional security threats, said that while ASEAN has a haze agreement, it cannot be fully implemented because Indonesia has yet to ratify it.
Moreover, the bloc has yet to draw up an implementing mechanism for the treaty, said Caballero-Anthony, who heads the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University.