Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Disaster in South East Asia: a 40 year problem

By Abhinav VijayPublished November 9, 2015

South East Asia is facing a crisis and urgently needs to change course of action to stop the burning of forests and the massive air pollution and finally get serious about climate change.

By Abhinav Vijay, 11/9/15

There is an ongoing environmental crisis taking place in Southeast Asia.  Forest fires raging in Indonesian islands have blanketed the region in a sepia-toned fog referred to as haze.  Haze is caused by the smoke that occurs from the burning of forests in peatlands in Sumatra and the Kalimantan region of Borneo. Due to irregularly dry climate caused by El Nino, the effects of the haze are being exacerbated. These fires are the result of illegal slash and burn practices that clear tropical rainforests for agricultural land.  The land is eventually used for oil palm estates or pulpwood and is typically more expensive than clear-cut land.  
Let us look at some numbers. Air pollution has become so severe that PSI (pollutant standards index) levels in central Kalimantan reached 2,300 (a PSI of above 300 is considered hazardous).  Neighboring Singapore (roughly 900 kilometers away) had reached a record high of 341 which resulted in school closures and cancellation of some events in the 2015 FINA Swimming World Cup.  500,000 people  have reported severe acute respiratory tract infections since July. Indonesia reportedly faces approximately 47 billion dollars in economic losses due to both direct and indirect impacts of the haze.  Finally, the most damning number of all: 40, the number of years this event has been going on.  The haze has been such a regular occurrence, there is an entire Wikipedia section devoted to it.
The severity of the 2015 edition seems to be creating a watershed moment.  Pressure is being applied by governments and nonprofits alike for solutions.  Indonesia has responded by arresting executives from seven companies that are allegedly behind the illegal fires.  Several companies involved with palm oil plantations in Indonesia base have operations in Singapore and for their part, the government has begun tough anti-haze measures, including legal action.  Singaporeans are beginning to flex their consumer power by calling for boycotts and paying more attention to sustainable products, fueling the movement "We Breathe What We Buy". The widespread use of palm oil has meant that western companies are being targeted as well.  
Unfortunately,  for all the (belated) action by consumers, the Indonesia government hasn't taken any form of significant action beyond the arrests.  The Indonesia government recently revealed their Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution (INDC) submission for the COP21 Paris conference later this year and there appears to be no discernible plan or commitment towards abating the current and regularly occurring crisis.  Furthermore, Indonesia's politicians, especially vice-president Jusuf Kalla, appear to display a cavalier attitude towards the problem.  While his comments, "for 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset" appear in poor taste, they allude to a rather important aspect of human behavior- we tend to take the environment for granted.
What is happening right now with haze this year and people in the region are beginning to value the clean air that occurs through the protection(or rather non-burning) of tropical rainforest.  Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison wrote in their 2002 book, The New Economy of Nature, that nature and its services are becoming increasingly scarce. And where there is scarcity, there is economic value.  While large corporations are taking the brunt of the blame, the effects of small holder agriculture are being overlooked.  World Resources Institute (WRI) links illegal slash and burn practices with the need for quick and cheap methods of land clearing.  A 2013 study published in Environmental Hazards came to the conclusion that well-connected companies exert their socioeconomic influence among communities which allow them to skirt policies.  This could contribute to the poor enforcement of illegal land clearing practices, along with a lucrative illegal market for land.  This shows that these benefits are worth more than the forests and leads back to the issue that we undervalue the services that nature provides.  

It becomes imperative that we begin factoring the true economic value of nature.  Already there are calls for Indonesia to start investing in the protection of peatland forests. Indonesia does not have to go at it alone as the benefits clearly extend beyond her borders. Singapore, being the richest country in the region, should take a significant lead in the process.  On the ground research is in short supply and hence is the first area that requires additional funding.  Programs that involve communities in the protection of the forests need development as well ones that involve transfer of payment schemes between governments for the protection of the forests.  Ultimately,  the blame game
needs to stop and greater collaboration between countries in Southeast Asia is required in order to combat the haze and ultimately get serious about climate change.