By the Blouin News Business staff

Clearing the air from illegal fires in Indonesia?

by in Asia-Pacific.

A forest fire burns bushes and fields in Siak Regency, Riau Province, Indonesia. Getty Images

A forest fire burns bushes and fields in Siak Regency, Riau Province, Indonesia. Getty Images

Wide-ranging haze from forest fires set on purpose to clear land– illegally– in Indonesia is more than just a national embarrassment every year. Neighboring countries are being gravely affected by the drifting noxious haze, which can cause coughs and lung infections. Understandably upset, they are demanding the companies responsible be held accountable. “The Indonesian government needs to take action against parties causing the haze problem which has not only affected the air quality of Malaysia but its economy as well,” said Najib Razak, Malaysia’s P.M., on Monday.

The land is often cleared to make room for lucrative palm oil plantations. (According to the BBC, Indonesia has often pointed out that some of the companies responsible for the burning are foreign-owned and that their neighbors benefit from cheap palm oil products.) But the illegal burning not only endangers public health, it also destroys vital habitat for biodiversity (often in protected areas), and releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making it a globally-significant problem.

And to the dismay of Malaysia and Singapore, their offers of assistance to Jakarta (both in disaster response as well as in prosecution of those responsible) have not been accepted.  So there is frustratingly little that Malaysia and Singapore can do to change this large-scale haze problem, which is almost entirely generated by Indonesia. “Only Indonesia alone can gather evidence and convict the companies concerned with whatever actions and… [determine] whether the source of the act was due to the companies or spontaneous combustion from effects of changing weather,” Najib added.

So for the past few weeks Malaysia and Singapore have been dealing with major haze-caused disruptions. At least five areas in Malaysia on Sunday recorded “very unhealthy” levels of air pollution, including one that reported “hazardous” levels. As a result, almost all schools in peninsular Malaysia were closed for Monday and Tuesday of this week.

Najib stressed that the solution to the haze problem “will take into consideration the agreement signed by the three countries to combat haze. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are still working on interpreting the agreement into a suitable form of action to ensure the matter does not recur,” he concluded.

To his credit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo fully acknowledges the haze problem and is working hard to combat it, in part because Indonesians are suffering as well. But the scale is daunting— the fires cover tens of thousands of hectares in 6 provinces— and there is much engineering work that must be done before the resources to fight the fires are available. To this end, the country is building water reserves in forests and canals to transport water to the hotspots, while also making progress to enforce laws against forest-burning, he said in late September. Widodo promised improved results every year, and said “in three years we will have solved this.”

Late September brought other encouraging news too: Indonesia agreed to share with Singapore detailed information on companies responsible for these fires. Less than a week later, Singapore announced it had issued legal proceedings against five Indonesian companies under its 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, in which the government can impose a daily fine of about $70,000 (up to a cumulative $1.4 million) on a local or foreign company that contributes to unhealthy levels of haze pollution in the city.

Ten companies that manufacture paper products sold in Singapore declared on Monday that they do not use products from those five Indonesian firms under suspicion, and instead source sustainably. Soon this will be the industry standard rather than a notable declaration, helping to clear the air among the three neighboring countries.