The Reality of ‘Haze’ Season in Southeast Asia

Media reporting around recent haze over Southeast Asia has once again tilted towards a poorly informed ‘blame game,’ aimed at palm oil producers. It is important to be able to correct these misconceptions, and to establish the reality around the haze in Southeast Asia.

Longer dry seasons around the world – including in Southeast Asia and caused at least in significant part by climate shifts – are leading to greater and greater challenges from wildfires and forest fires. These fires are raging on almost every continent around the world – the most prominent examples (but far from the only ones) are Russia, Australia, US, Greece, Indonesia and Brazil. All countries developed and developing, that suffer from the longer dryer seasons are having to battle with the fires – and the significant impacts, such as the haze that results from the fires and blankets entire regions in a cloud of smoke.

The haze is a problem wherever there are major fires – and it leads to health problems for local people, economic and social disruption for businesses, travelers, governments, and of course it is a major environmental pollutant.

Given the global nature of what is happening, it should be expected that a level of understanding and sympathy would exist between countries and continents – perhaps a global attempt to learn from these multiple incidents: how to work together, support each other, and so on. Instead, sadly, what is happening is that the fires and haze that take place in the developing world are being used as a stick to beat those countries with. There is no solidarity – instead, there is a cynical double-standard.

Russia – a European nation – has seen some of the worst forest fires in history in 2019. To clarify – this is taking place in the largest forest in the world. Neither Borneo nor the Amazon comes close to the scale of Russia’s boreal forests. 13 million hectares of forest have burned: an area larger than Greece. And yet, there was none of the outrage and condemnation that greeted, for example, the Southeast Asian haze event in 2015. No screaming front-page headlines; no aggressive NGO reports or campaigning; no calls for bans and boycotts of Russian products; no denunciations from European Parliamentarians. Forest fires are global problems

As wildfires sweep across Australia – and it is only spring there, so the summer season will doubtless bring further fires – there are no calls for boycotts of Australian beef and sugarcane or NGO social media campaigns.
The devastating fires in the US, most notably California, are met by a similar level of quiet concern from global media and politicians.

It cannot be a coincidence that the two fire/haze events that have caused fury in the global media, and threats of sanctions from politicians, have both happened in developing countries. The fires and haze events in Southeast Asia in 2015, and in Latin America’s Amazonas region in 2019, received vastly different – more aggressive – treatment. The media dial was set to ‘scandal’, political leaders fell over each other to denounce the countries, NGOs and others called for boycotts and trade sanctions. Despite the current fire incidences, it should be noted that Southeast Asian countries have recorded notable achievements, due to prevention, mitigation, and system, down to local Levels. As an example, the contribution of fire-free village program in Indonesia has provided good results.

This is not an effort to excuse the existence of the fires in the developing world – they are bad for the environment, for health, and for the regional economy. Local governments, agencies, and companies are doing all they can to prevent the fires from re-occurring. This planning and preparation happen in developing countries, just as it does in the West. But the hot, dry weather cannot always be tamed: across all continents, this has held true.

There is an unforgivable double-standard applied in these cases: failures in the developed world are ignored, and failures in developing nations are magnified. Environmental catastrophes are a ‘tragedy’ in some countries, but a ‘scandal’ in others. This is not helpful, and it is not constructive.

What is needed instead is a serious analysis of the fires, what causes them and why, and how they can be addressed. This analytical is as important in Sydney as it is in Sumatra; as applicable to California as Kalimantan.

In Southeast Asia, much of the blame for recent haze events were directed towards the palm oil industry. This is inaccurate. The real, root causes of the haze need to be explained and understood. Moreover, slash and burn agriculture still practiced in many areas within the regions must be done in a controlled manner.

Smallholders have used burning as part of ‘swidden’ agriculture for centuries in Asia, Europe and the rest of the world. Fire clears vegetation; the ash leaves nutrients in the soil. In the United States, ‘field burning’ is still used across many states as part of agricultural management. Across southeast Asia today, starting fires in this way is generally illegal and in many countries is harshly punished. While there are some exceptions, usually granted by permit, these are not the responsibility of the palm oil sector.

Oil palm plantations are generally not the source of burning. Fires that are recorded on plantation areas have generally spread there from neighboring areas, where small fires were started.

Regional governments – notably Singapore and Indonesia – have held actors to account. It has taken action against pulp companies, noting that they were responsible for many of the fires in Sumatra. Yet it has been palm oil products – not paper products – that have borne much of the criticism outside the region.

The haze situation in Southeast Asia is complex, with a large number of actors in the government, private sector, and local communities. The factors are environmental, economic and social, and of course with highly sensitive local political factors as well. Providing poor smallholders with alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture is one important element for future progress: economic development, as in many areas, should be viewed as a potential solution rather than a cause.

What can be done in the region to mitigate and eventually prevent the haze events from inflicting such damage on the local environment and economy? Unfortunately, the longer dry seasons, El Nino events, and hotter climate may be set to continue there is little that governments can do on that front.

However, substantial action is being taken already: the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Agreement has established monitoring centers, data sharing and standard responses in emergencies, as well as the establishment of a panel of experts. An important step towards a regional approach to a regional problem.

More resources are needed, also. Indonesia, in particular, has a large land area to cover and institutional challenges – e.g., maintaining a standing firefighting agency – that require assistance and support from partner countries. Developed nations take firefighting capacity for granted. California has 12,000 firefighters, 23 1,200-gallon air tankers, 14 tactical air aircraft, and 12 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters distributed across 23 bases statewide. No doubts more actions need to be done.

The ASEAN Secretariat, the Asian Development Bank, and research groups such as CIFOR among others are looking into what more can be achieved through research, collaboration and improved planning. More technologically innovative solutions are also being engaged – Malaysia is preparing cloud- seeding planes to induce rainfall if the haze event threatens further in 2019. Water bombing, weather modification and artificial rain operations are all also being used in the Indonesian regions affected by the fires.

The haze itself causes many problems – environmental, health, economic, which are the primary reason that governments and others are working furiously to prevent it from re-occurring. The negative and reductionist coverage of the haze, though, is also problematic. A reductionist approach that simply blames oil palm farmers is neither accurate nor constructive. A double standard that criticizes developing countries, while ignoring other, bigger, fires elsewhere, is troubling. The ‘blame game’ – after the fact — doesn’t help; a more serious and analytical approach is needed that puts resources into preventing fires from spreading.