International Policy Digest

World News /16 Oct 2019

Blame Jakarta’s Lack of Enforcement for Indonesia’s Devastating Forest Fires

Southeast Asia is no stranger to air pollution and smog as the region is struggling to clean up its economies. Although the adverse impacts on health have been clearly demonstrated, the member states of ASEAN have been slow to respond to the growing crisis, and companies have been even slower to address their environmental impacts.

This time, however, things are different: the forest fires raging in Indonesia have blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in a thick haze, leading to outrage and lots of finger-pointing at Indonesia during a recent ASEAN meeting for failing to punish companies operating on its territories involved in slash and burn forest clearing.

The meeting in Cambodia demonstrates how politicized the issue has become. With tensions running ever higher, Malaysia has been the lead prosecutor of sorts in this current dispute, squarely laying the blame for the fires and ensuing haze at the feet of the Indonesian government. To no one’s surprise, Jakarta shot back and pointed at Malaysia’s own less-than-stellar record when it comes to preventing fires.

Politics aside, it is clear to international observers that every country in the region carries parts of the responsibility – and all need to be part of the solution. After all, Indonesia’s current forest fires are the worst since 2015. They have prompted Malaysian authorities to shut down 2,600 schools, threatened Singapore’s F1 Grand Prix in September and caused respiratory problems in almost 900,000 Indonesians. In short, the issue is transnational and a common response is required to rein in the problem in the long-term.

Paper and palm oil industries paying lip service

That said, Malaysia’s particular unhappiness with Indonesia’s handling of the crisis is not entirely unwarranted. The 2015 fires prompted Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to introduce a temporary moratorium on forest clearance, made permanent this August. Widodo also promised to clamp down on those flouting the rules by introducing stringent measures aimed at stopping slash-and-burn tactics, including 10 years jail time or fines of over $700,000 if found guilty of transgression.

However, the fact that these incidents have continued to proliferate despite these laws strongly indicates that those responsible for the fires – primarily large palm oil and paper companies – continue undeterred as law enforcement is lacking where it is needed most. According to public GIS data, 21% of this year’s blazes originated in palm oil concessions. Even more, 28% of the fires were found to have originated on pulpwood plantations.

In one particularly flagrant example, Greenpeace cut all ties with Asian Pulp and Paper (APP), a subsidiary of Sinar Mas Group (SMG) along with Paper Excellence, due to the fact that it suspected the former of participating in illegal deforestation practices while ostensibly cooperating with environmentalists to address the issue. Greenpeace pointed to the fact that 25 of 27 suppliers which Sinar Mas had previously claimed to be independent (and therefore beyond its jurisdiction) were connected to SMG. Of additional concern is that APP and Paper Excellence are looking to expand into vulnerable regions that are keenly focused on environmental preservation, such as Canada, where it currently already holds operations and Brazil.

Above the law?

Greenpeace has also argued that Jakarta must be held responsible for the consequences of its own lethargic attitude to enforcing its own laws. In a special report, Greenpeace highlighted how many of the same companies who had been found guilty of wrongdoing in 2015 were implicated in this year’s infernos, underscoring the government’s ineffectiveness in tackling the root cause of the problem.

The Indonesian government has made a big song and dance about the 200 arrests made this year, but a closer look reveals that real progress has been scant. All of the largest palm oil companies implicated in the 2015 scandals have gone unpunished, and even though the Indonesian government has won 9 of 17 court cases (with all other eight pending), a paltry $5.5 million of the $223 million in fines owed have been paid to date. Clearly, the government is more eager to portray the impression that it’s policing the industry, but its unwillingness – or inability – to go after the major players demonstrates less enthusiasm.

The situation is no more encouraging with regards to pulpwood plantations. Government officials revoked a total of three licenses in the period between 2015 and 2018, as opposed to zero revocations among palm oil companies. Yet the absence of meaningful sanctions against the companies most responsible, including Sinar Mas and its affiliates, shows how the regulations are toothless when it comes to the bigger fish in the frying pan.

Forging an ASEAN-wide response

Still, it would be unfair to suggest that Indonesia has been wholly negligent in protecting its natural assets. The country has made real progress in reducing deforestation in recent years. After peaking in 2016, primary forest loss plummeted in 2017 and 2018, with the latter year enjoying a 40% reduction compared against the annual average between 2002 and 2016. Malaysia on the other hand, was among the top countries to see high levels of deforestation in 2018.

The nexus between deforestation and wide-spread fires is key when it comes to tackling both. It is a serious issue that requires a common response from all countries in the ASEAN region. At the core is the ability to enforce laws against deforestation, be it done through burning or not. A first step would be to follow up on some members’ pledges to establish protected areas under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Another option is to formalize and standardize the way ASEAN countries deal with managing their forests and anti-deforestation measures, which are widely different and independent from ASEAN. Agreeing on basic common targets and approaches that establish action guidelines could help expedite national responses and facilitate international assistance missions. The 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze, created in response to devastating fires in 1997, could act as the central document, but signatories need to stop dragging their feet in its implementation.

Perhaps the experience of the current blaze and smog will cause a renewed interest in these measures. The region is aware of the adverse economic effects these fires have on their economies, so the fact that ASEAN officials have spoken out about a greater need for cross-border collaboration is surely an important reminder of the situation’s urgency. But unless these countries take the big companies to task and clamp down on their unlawful behaviour in earnest, we are certain to see another repeat of the fires until there is nothing left to burn.