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No end in sight to Southeast Asia's toxic haze

Authorities must share responsibility for the ineptitude that enabled dangerous smog to engulf the region

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No end in sight to Southeast Asia's toxic haze

Indonesian firefighters battle a forest fire in Kampar, Riau, on Sept. 23. Such blazes have been spewing toxic haze across Southeast Asia, forcing the closure of schools and airports. (Photo by Wahyudi/AFP)

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For decades Southeast Asia has been afflicted by haze, a euphemism for a toxic smog which blankets the region for weeks, sometimes months, causing enormous health issues and damage costing billions of dollars.

It normally strikes around September after farmers and plantation owners begin their annual burning off of land in Sumatra and Borneo. Fires spiral out of control and the acrid smoke is driven across the region to as far as the Philippines, Thailand and Indochina.

It’s the type of problem that should fit neatly within the legal and cross-border diplomatic framework of the 10 countries that make up the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Yet despite the damage, governments and corporations have done little to resolve the crisis and paid scant regard to the health of their own people or the outrage over what has become an annual event.

The timing of this year’s haze could not have been worse for those responsible. It struck as children and teenagers from 140 countries went on strike in protest over the world’s inability to deal with climate change, with southeasterly winds pushing the noxious haze across the Gulf of Thailand and into Vietnam and Cambodia.

Indonesia is the word’s third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States and, according to a study by the Christian University of Indonesia, forest fires contribute 60 percent to the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The haze is also a human rights issue — the right to breathe clean air — and the vast majority of those affected are poor or living near the breadline.

There is no shortage of laws to protect the rainforests or to ensure clean air standards. Indonesia’s environmental protection law carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence for setting fires to clear land.

But a Southeast Asian malaise, where politicians and businessmen believe they are above the law, is preventing progress as timber and plantation industries are justifiably accused of putting profit before the health of their own people.

Still, authorities insist they have acted. About 230 people were arrested on suspicion of starting fires to clear land for crops and more than 200 companies and individuals were named as fires took hold amid an unusually prolonged dry spell caused by the El Nino climate phenomenon.

El Nino is well documented and the drought should have served as a warning. Authorities knew this year’s haze was a serious threat months before it emerged and did little or nothing to crack down on the few who benefit from land clearing. Nor did they make the public aware of the pending dangers.

Indonesia's Supreme Court has already upheld a ruling which found the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo among those liable for the forest fires resulting in the 2015 regional haze, a standout year along with 1997. The haze was first recorded in 1972.

Scientists have also complained that Jokowi did not deliver on much needed and promised reforms, with the president even admitting “We’ve been negligent again” in regard to this year’s fires.

The damage done

Fires were also lit in the Tesso Nilo National Park, home to about 140 endangered wild elephants, and cut across large swathes of land in southeast Borneo where Indonesia intends to build its new capital, designed to celebrate the local ecology. Seriously.

Fed by an abundance of slow-burning peat, the haze is a dangerous cocktail that includes carbon monoxide, cyanide and formaldehyde alongside particles of ash and wood that are potentially carcinogenic, particularly over the longer term.

As in previous years, schools were closed and flights cancelled, people told to stay indoors where they were ordering food online, asthma attacks sharply increased and “oxygen houses” were opened to treat people suffering from acute respiratory illness.

Air quality in Kuching topped the tables at a level deemed “very unhealthy”. In Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, air quality was at an unhealthy level. Malaysia handed out free N95 masks and launched an education program on their necessity with prices capped at about US$1.44 each.

Dr. Amar Singh, a senior consultant pediatrician based in Ipoh, told Al Jazeera television that what worried him was long-term malignancy. “It’s like the entire country is smoking cigarettes. You can stay in your home but you are still going to breathe in the particulate matter.”

The cost of politics

No financial estimates have been made for the current year but in 1997 about 40,000 people were hospitalized in Indonesia and financial costs were put at US$9 billion. Fires in 2015 burned out 2.6 million hectares and cost Indonesia US$15.7 billion, double the reconstruction costs incurred by the 2004 tsunami.

This is not the first time that authorities have attempted to hold companies to account for the haze and each year the same excuses are trotted out while the acrid smoke pollutes, damages health and makes life difficult for hundreds of millions of people.

Many of those companies are part of much larger conglomerates and listed on stock markets in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bangkok, where regulators and governments have failed to enforce their own laws.

But at the end of the day the only answer is class action law suits. Plantation owners and those responsible for the haze must be held accountable for criminal intent, environmental and financial damage and, more importantly, the harm caused to the health of their people.

An alternative would be to pursue those responsible through the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where presiding judges could be asked to rule whether the health dangers to so many people constitute a crime against humanity.

Such talk will no doubt upset the ruling elites who have profited from decades of willfully burning out rainforests to make way for timber, pulp and palm oil plantations. But the consequences from a failure to act will be dire and say much about Southeast Asian attitudes and the region’s place in the world.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.

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