Haze in Southeast Asia: A Brief Case Study – Georgetown International Environmental Law Review


Haze in Southeast Asia: A Brief Case Study

by Jae-Hyong Shim, GIELR Online Staff Member

First-timers in the Asia-Pacific are often baffled by the not uncommon sight of locals wearing masks while outdoors. But often the motive behind the mask-donning is quite simple: individuals wear masks to help breathe and function under grey skies saturated with air pollutants. China provides a well-known example, where urban dwellers are no strangers to haze and breathing masks.

Some have even found creative inspiration through this phenomenon. Designer Yin Peng unveiled stylish smog masks late last year at the semi-annual China Fashion Week. Such a novel attempt to combine function with fashion is not unique. Around the same time last year, Simone Rebaudengo and Paul Adams, residents of Shanghai, introduced Unmask, “a mask that allows [others] to read your facial expressions and unmask your ‘emotion’ hidden underneath.” It is still an experimental prototype, but should it be commercialized, Rebaudengo and Adams can expect to find new fans not just in China but in Southeast Asia as well, a region that has long suffered from transboundary haze.

Slash-and-burn agriculture, particularly in the palm oil-producing Riau province of western Indonesia located in close proximity to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, is the main culprit behind Southeast Asia’s haze. Indonesian laws banning slash-and-burn practices exist, but have traditionally been under-enforced due to the importance of the palm oil industry to the Indonesian economy, administrative difficulties, and corruption. A significant portion of the Indonesian land on which slash-and-burn agriculture is practiced is owned by large palm oil companies, many of which are Malaysian, which further complicates the picture by incentivizing more finger-pointing and less action. And although on the surface many palm oil companies boast strict no-burning policies, they are accused of covertly lighting fires or paying others to light them on their behalf.

Because the haze implicates and affects several countries in the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a natural forum in which to address the problem. A 1992 ASEAN conference in Bandung, Indonesia gave rise to early efforts to collectively address the transboundary haze challenge. But it was not until after the disastrous 1997 haze, which caused US$9 billion worth of losses to the region’s tourism, transportation, and farming industries, that the members of ASEAN (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao DPR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) put forward a concrete legal instrument addressed specifically at haze, the 1997 Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) (note: link is to unofficial copy erroneously titled “1977 Regional Haze Action Plan”). Identifying land and forest fires as the cause of transboundary haze, the RHAP sought to promote regional cooperation and on-the-ground capacity-building for better preventive, monitoring, and mitigation measures. Although the RHAP presented a step forward, its non-binding nature and the lack of detailed implementation schemes expose its shortcomings.

In 2002, ASEAN members drafted and signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (“Haze Treaty”). The Haze Treaty shares the RHAP’s core objective: the prevention, monitoring, and mitigation of transboundary haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires through concerted national efforts and intensified regional and international cooperation. However, the Haze Treaty differs from the RHAP in at least two important ways. First, the Treaty establishes an ASEAN Co-ordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control (the ASEAN Centre) to facilitate information sharing and coordination among parties in managing transboundary haze pollution and fires that cause them. Second, the Treaty imposes binding obligations upon parties designed to ensure state-level implementation of measures commensurate with the Treaty goals. They include:

  1. Taking appropriate measures to monitor (i) all fire prone areas, (ii) all land and/or forest fires, (iii) the environmental conditions conducive to such land and/or forest fires, and (iv) haze pollution arising from such land and/or forest fires, as well as designating a National Monitoring Centre for such purposes.
  1. Regularly communicating to the ASEAN Centre national data gathered from the above monitoring activities, which data is then consolidated and analyzed by the Centre.
  1. Preventing and controlling activities related to land and forest fires causing transboundary haze including by developing legislative, administrative, and awareness-building measures to curb slash-and-burn practices.
  1. Ensuring appropriate legislative, administrative, and financial measures are taken to mobilize resources necessary to respond to and mitigate the impact of haze pollution.
  1. Promoting and supporting scientific and technical research programs related to the causes and consequences of transboundary haze pollution.

Despite initial enthusiasm, Indonesia’s non-ratification until September of last year and the failure to prescribe strong enforcement measures against noncompliant parties were identified as the two primary factors reducing the effectiveness of the Haze Treaty. Indonesia’s late ratification gives it the dubious honor of being the last of the ten ASEAN member-countries to ratify the Treaty. Nevertheless, Indonesia’s ratification is a welcome development for the future and many in the region hope that it will pave the way for clearer skies.