Land and forest fires in Indonesia are once again wreaking havoc in the region due to uncontrolled burning to clear land. The number of hotspots recorded reached an all time high in June this year, with WWF noting some 1,960 occurrences, mostly in the provinces of Riau, North Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan.
Episodes of prolonged “haze” as a result of uncontrolled burning have produced insurmountable loss for both Indonesia and its neighbors, be it through environmental, health, social, political or economic costs.
It is well documented that poor air quality is detrimental to health, causing upper respiratory tract infections, asthma and other afflictions in both young and old. Singaporean government research reveals a 30 percent increase in outpatient attendance during haze outbreaks and increases of 12 percent in upper respiratory tract illness, 19 percent in asthma and 26 percent in rhinitis. These are real impacts affecting the citizens of Asean-member nations.
Uncontrolled burning damages forest ecosystems and directly impacts species they harbor including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Additionally burning pollutes reservoirs and rivers, killing fish and other aquatic organisms and greatly diminishes land productivity due to erosion and soil run-off.
During the worst of the haze in the late 1990s, an estimated $9 billion in losses to tourism, transportation and farming resulted from the thick smog that drifted as far as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. These are real impacts affecting Asean economies.
These negative impacts continue to threaten the region as hundreds of hotspots occur today, concentrated in Sumatra’s Riau province where the pulp and paper industry is rapidly converting forest for plantations, and in West and Central Kalimantan, where large areas are being opened up for oil palm plantations.
WWF applauds initiatives to prevent land and forest fires, such as the visit last week by four Indonesian ministers to West Kalimantan to coordinate efforts with local administrative authorities.
However, as a leading forest nation in Asean, large-scale commitment is crucial. Indonesia is the only member in the region that has not yet ratified the Transboundary Haze Agreement since its sanction in 2003. As pressure mounts from neighbors Malaysia and Singapore for Indonesia to take serious action to control the problem, ratification is a crucial move to demonstrate the nation’s commitment toward stopping haze pollution.
Ratification could enable significant change for the region, showcasing the leadership and integrity of Asean to the world, through the reassurance that member countries will take proactive steps to address environmental challenges.
Indonesia has demonstrated its leadership on environmental issues in the past. In 2007 it joined the governments of Malaysia and Brunei in signing the Heart of Borneo Declaration, which aims to protect and sustainably manage 22 million hectares of forests. The same year it hosted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which has paved the way for a global agreement on reducing carbon emissions.
As current chair of Asean, and with the host of other challenges on the agenda, signing the Transboundary Haze Agreement would be an easy win for Indonesia. It could be argued that Indonesia needs the agreement to be able to meet its bold targets of achieving 7 percent economic growth while reducing carbon emissions by 26-41 percent by 2020.
This would be a tangible step toward achieving the aspirations of the Asean community while also making headway on the global challenge of climate change. Indonesia could reap multiple benefits that result from proactive leadership, and add further to its reputation as a leader in Asia in the pursuit of a future green economy.
In the wake of Asean meetings in Bali that drew world leaders and delegates together, now is the time for action. Indonesia can again demonstrate its leadership and showcase the vital importance of Asean to the world.
Adam Tomasek leads WWF’s Heart of Borneo Initiative, a trilateral effort to safeguard biodiversity in the Indonesian, Malaysian and Brunei Darussalam territories comprising central Borneo.