How to clear away the haze suffocating Southeast Asia

Waldbrand in Indonesien

The forest fires in Borneo and Sumatra are the worst fires in almost 20 years. Experts agree that slash-and-burn agriculture is their immediate cause. What can be done to improve the situation?

Even for a region that has gotten used to choking haze, the severity of Southeast Asia's current air pollution crisis is unprecedented. Forest fires in Borneo and Sumatra have created a thick cloud of smoke that hangs over Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and even stretches to Vietnam and the Philippines. These are the worst fires in almost 20 years and perhaps, if NASA's predictions are accurate, the worst in recorded history. Fires have even been seen on the typically calm island of Papua: a warning of what we can expect if dramatic changes in land use continue. Regional governments and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have been woefully incapable of managing these fires, and this global environmental catastrophe must be the catalyst for a massive, government-driven transformation of the agricultural sector in the region.

Politicians, scientists and environmentalists all agree that slash-and-burn agriculture is the immediate cause of these fires. Burning is usually the most cost-effective way to clear land for agriculture. Indonesia's tropical peat can smolder underground for months, and so fires can rapidly flare up during the dry season, creating the now-annual haze. This year, an unusually severe El Niño has worsened the dry season and created the worst fires in decades.

40 million Indonesians have been affected

The world has never seen pollution on this scale. Forty million Indonesians have been affected by the haze - and that is just in one country. Almost 140,000 people across the region have visited hospitals for respiratory illnesses since the fires began, and there are reports that children have died from lung infections. The Malaysian government has closed schools for several days to protect its students, affecting over two million children. Jakarta is currently debating whether to declare a national state of emergency and has already declared a state of emergency in several provinces. Local Indonesian politicians debate motions in facemasks as the sepia-toned haze infiltrates provincial parliaments. Jakarta is even readying military ships to potentially evacuate residents of Kalimantan if conditions worsen.

The true environmental costs are so large they will never be fully known. Indonesia's tropical peatlands have been called a "carbon time-bomb" by environmental experts. Yearly fires release vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, similar to how melting permafrost in the tundra releases trapped methane. Indonesia's daily emissions this season have exceeded the daily emissions from the United States, an economy 20 times larger. Indonesia in three weeks has emitted more carbon than Germany has all year.

An unquantifiable planetary loss

Deforestation also directly affects weather systems. Forests transfer water from the ground to the air; deforestation can thus affect local rainfall and larger climate. Haze from forest fires partially blocks the amount of sunlight reaching the surface. This reduces evaporation from bodies of water and so affects cloud formation and rainfall. Thus, deforestation and forest fires foster a dangerous feedback loop.

Finally, there is the devastation to the region's biodiversity. Borneo has one of the world's oldest rainforests, with 15,000 species of flowering plants, 420 species of birds, almost 400 species of fish and 210 species of mammals - and these are just the ones we know about. A more diverse ecosystem improves soil quality, provides better natural pest control and disease resistance and is more resilient to environmental change. The countless unseen small animals and insects may not be the threatened megafauna the world usually gets excited about, but they are critical to the vitality of the eco-system. They have been fried in the billions: an unquantifiable planetary loss.

The enormous environmental and social costs of Indonesia's fires should indicate to negotiators at the upcoming Paris climate negotiations that just tinkering around the edges by asking for non-enforceable pledges to combat climate change will simply not work. They must instead confront the fundamental market failure in a global economy that relies on underpriced resources and externalized costs.

Indonesia and its palm oil production

Slash-and-burn agriculture is part of an archaic agricultural sector reliant on the unsustainable destruction of rainforests. Borneo's current problems started in 1996, when the Indonesian government resettled thousands of farmers from overcrowded Java to less-developed Kalimantan. Forests were cut down and peatlands were drained to clear the land for agricultural production. The failed project left behind a devastated forest more susceptible to fire and a population of destitute migrants desperate for any work.

Indonesia has since developed a large agricultural sector that relies significantly on one crop: palm oil. The oil palm is a high-yield, low-cost commodity with uses in food, cooking and consumer products, and numerous agricultural companies have rapidly expanded their Indonesian palm oil operations - from about 1 million hectares in 1994 to over 7 million in 2013. Indonesia's plantations currently make up about half of the world's total oil palm acreage. Even if companies are not engaging in deforestation directly, their rapid expansion often pushes small farmers off their land, who then engage in their own slash-and-burn clearing as they try to settle somewhere else.

This uncontrolled situation needed strong action, but a policy vacuum has left the region with a calamity. Everyone agrees that the current system produces catastrophic results, but this consensus has not been enough to develop a practical solution. After all, slash-and-burn works for commodity companies as a cheap, risk-free way to expand production. It lies at the heart of their business model, and is supported by relentless global consumption of cheap palm oil products. Without first radically reforming the agricultural sector, the region cannot expect either small farmers or large commodity firms to change their behavior.

A blind eye to illegal deforestation

Vested interests have also infiltrated all aspects of the debate, which make toothless and self-serving business-oriented options the only ones left on the table. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was often lauded as a novel approach to environmental problems by putting both businessmen and environmentalists in the same room. However, the RSPO has had little impact, as fires continue in concessions owned by its members. Environmental NGOs, desperate to achieve some measure of success, began cooperating with commercial interests in ways that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. They now find themselves conflicted as these partnerships fail to achieve results. A good example is the WWF - a founding member of the RSPO - which must stand by its business partners in palm oil despite their failure to restrict deforestation.

There is no running away from the fact that this is a colossal failure of governance. Some of this is Indonesia's fault: Jakarta lacks the resources to enforce its environmental regulations in this vast terrain, and corruption encourages local governments to turn a blind eye to illegal deforestation. However, this is also a regional failure. Any solution will cost money Jakarta likely does not have, but the region provides little long-term help. It is politically and practically unfeasible for Indonesia to "limit" the development of remote regions at the apparent behest of other countries, especially as plantation companies based in Singapore and Malaysia are often to blame.

The regional forum meant to solve this problem has been largely apathetic on the issue. ASEAN signed an agreement on transboundary haze in 2002, which Indonesia, the main source of the haze, only ratified in 2014. While it is right to criticize this sluggishness, exclusively blaming Jakarta misses the regional failure in devising a practical agreement. The agreement called on member states to implement and enforce tougher regulations, without providing much in the way of long-term cooperation or assistance. ASEAN's mistake was expecting Indonesia to take on the responsibility for solving this difficult task alone.

Beijing and Tokyo must help

In the short term, the fires need to be stopped and Indonesia needs far more help to combat them. Jakarta predicts that the current fire season will exhaust its entire fire management budget, as well as a sizable portion of a fund set aside to handle other disasters. Indonesia should send more troops to fire-stricken areas to handle the situation - and, if needed, impose martial law - but these troops need to be backed up by international attention and resources.

Singapore and Malaysia have pledged some funds, aircraft and expertise, but much more is needed. Asia's two largest economies can help: Beijing and Tokyo should set aside their differences by providing muscle and technical and management expertise as part of the immediate solution. It is also shocking that the United Nations has yet to consider this issue in either the General Assembly or the Security Council. Discussion in either forum would attract global attention and pressure Southeast Asia to take this catastrophe extremely seriously.

But at some point, the fires will go out, the soldiers will go home and Southeast Asia will return to business as usual. This cannot be allowed. ASEAN urgently needs to take the lead in devising a long-term regional approach to forest fires, deforestation and agricultural development.

What else should be done?

First, ASEAN should create a fund to provide resources for monitoring forests and providing rapid response when a fire occurs. One piece of information that is desperately needed is a real-time map that properly represents forests, degraded land and ownership claims, to clarify where monitoring is needed and where accountability lies. ASEAN nations can also cooperate by developing a framework for regional legal liability for the protection of these forests.

Part of the problem is that countries cannot punish companies mostly based overseas: Indonesia cannot sanction Singaporean companies, and Singapore cannot sanction Indonesian companies. A regional resource management court, perhaps under the auspices of the ASEAN economic community, can give member countries a tool to pursue companies contributing to regional environmental destruction. Singapore, where several commodity firms and plantation owners are based, can help give this international legal system some teeth by allowing Singapore-based assets to be targeted. This court could also deal with other regional environmental issues, such as the illegal trade in wildlife or illegal fishing.

ASEAN must also target the deeper structural issues in the agriculture sector. Through taxation, stronger legal liability and other limits to growth, the region can work to make palm oil a "sunset industry." All new palm oil agriculture should be limited to the 6 million hectares of deforested land, and must be managed with regional oversight and planning. Matching the private costs of palm oil production with its high social costs would be the basis for a sustainable industry that is not allowed further expansion through large-scale indiscriminate environmental destruction.

Governments need to intervene more forcefully

In addition, a more intensive campaign to re-forest and re-flood Borneo and Sumatra will reduce the risk of further fires. Financing this would be the perfect opportunity for regional development banks, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to prove themselves in Southeast Asia.

However, merely suppressing plantation farming will hurt Indonesia's poor unless ASEAN researches and invests in real alternatives. The region needs to move from a 19th century plantation model to a 21st century resource management and agricultural development model that focuses on small farms growing high-value crops and is supported by infrastructure and technological investments.

Different crops may provide enough revenue for a small farmer to survive on a plot of land, but could require a level of infrastructure that remote areas just do not have. Thus, the first step would be to research what is needed to make alternative crops feasible, followed by active investment in local infrastructure. For example, perishables require distribution and cold chain networks; combined with subsidies and price support, investment may encourage a move away from plantation crops and open new possibilities for local farmers. Sovereign wealth funds, like Singapore's Temasek and Malaysia's Khazanah, can use such a program to better invest in the future and gain sustainable long-term returns, while also ensuring that dangerous costs are not placed on their ultimate shareholders: their national populations.

Indonesia's forest fires are an environmental catastrophe that the world, let alone Southeast Asia, could never have imagined. Merely wagging the finger at plantation owners was never going to be a practical solution, and so governments need to intervene more forcefully to address this recurrent problem. This means more environmental regulation, more regional liability, more direct support on some crops and stricter growth limits on other products. ASEAN and the world must step forward and take action, before Southeast Asia is lost in the haze forever.

This article is part of our dossier Understanding Southeast Asia. It was first published on The World Post.