Regional Leaders Told to Get Tough on Haze

SINGAPORE ~ Southeast Asian leaders were urged this week to muster the political will to tackle the problem of forest fire haze that blankets the region regularly, during their summit in Singapore later this year.

Regional think tanks, environmental groups and academics said the smog – caused mainly by burnings in Indonesia – is contributing significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions and could impact on climate change if left unchecked.

In a statement following a one-day dialogue here, the delegates acknowledged some “positive steps” taken by Indonesia to deal with the problem, but said Jakarta and the region needed to do more.

“The dialogue called for ASEAN leaders to give attention to the haze,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which co-organized the event.

He said the delegates welcomed the intention of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders to focus on environmental issues at their summit in Singapore in November, hoping “that this would provide political will” to address the problem.

Tay said the delegates, including those from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and Center for International Forestry, “highlighted the connections between the regional haze pollution and fires and the global challenge of climate change.”

Smoggy haze from the fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan regions had sent air pollution levels in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore to unhealthy levels several times last year.

While the haze has not affected major cities in the region this year, this was attributed mainly to the wet weather and favorable wind direction.

Sundari Ramakrishna, coordinator fo the Malaysian Environmental NGOs, said the Indonesian fires are expected to continue in the next 20-30 years if big palm oil plantations continue to clear peatlands to grow the plant.

Oil palm has a variety of uses, providing ingredients for disinfectants, pharmaceuticals, cooking oil, soap and biofuels.

The increasing need for cleaner energy, such as biofuels – which can be derived from palm oil – has also led to the clearing of more forests.

With more agricultural land lost to urbanization, palm oil firms have moved further inland to clear tropical peatlands, Ramakrishna said. Many of these companies use fire to clear the land because it is cheaper.

But tropical peatlands consist of several layers of dead leaves, plant material and other forest debris that can build up to 20 meters deep, causing the fire to burn for several months.

Indonesia and Malaysia have more than 20 million hectares, or 60 percent, of the world’s tropical peatlands, according to an Asian Development Bank study on the haze problem published in 2001.

“We are dealing with very huge players in the world,” Ramakrishna said, referring to the palm oil plantations.

“Forests are not being cleared for agriculture. There’s this big monoculture for oil palm – this big monster they have created,” she said.

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