VOL. VI, NO. 2 | July 2020

Hastening A Haze Solution: The Challenges to ASEAN Collective Engagement

By Lloyd Alexander M. Adducul

Despite international accords, diplomatic dialogues, and national regulations, the transboundary haze pollution remains a perennial concern in Southeast Asia. This demonstrates ASEAN’s struggle in collectively dealing with regional problems. Eighteen years after its signing, the ASEAN Haze Agreement merits a critical evaluation. The challenges to achieving a haze-free ASEAN by 2020, the main goal of the agreement, stems from domestic problems and the ASEAN style of non-confrontational engagement and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Amid efforts to address the haze crisis while facing the Coronavirus-19 pandemic, current regional responses may provide insights on how to improve ASEAN collective engagement on the haze crisis.

As the 2020 dry season in Southeast Asia begins, the potential reoccurrence of transboundary haze pollution caused by forest and land fires befalls with a serious health caveat. Air contamination has been affecting millions of people across the globe, indicating a public health crisis. The World Health Organization reports that approximately four million deaths annually are due to diseases induced by ambient air pollution. This is considered the primary cause of respiratory illnesses among Southeast Asians, especially among the children.

What’s in the air?

The waning air quality in Southeast Asia has subsequently raised questions on the effectiveness of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a platform for regional collective engagement, notably identified in the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP). As the AATHP reaches its target timeline, it is imperative to assess the agreement and the ASEAN Member States’ (AMS) compliance to it.

Following the 1997 Southeast Asian transnational haze episodes brought particularly by persistent fires in Indonesia, the AMS agreed in 2002 to establish a set of procedures and cooperative mechanisms to prevent and mitigate this environmental and health hazard. Malaysia was the first to ratify it in 2002, while Indonesia was the last in 2014. Although ratification by all AMS took more than a decade, the AATHP was implemented in 2003. The differences in the promptness of ratification reflects how each AMS prioritizes the haze problem.

While lauded for being the first agreement that addresses an environmental concern at the ASEAN level, concerns remain over the AATHP´s effectiveness as it could not prevent subsequent haze incidences in the region—the latest of which was on September 2019.

The hazy lining

There has been a long history of tension over the haze crisis particularly among Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. A global player in the production of palm oil, Indonesia is arguably the principal contributor of Southeast Asian haze pollution due to wildfires brought by the continuous practice of illegal slash-and-burn farming1 for palm oil production and accidental incinerations of degraded peatlands2 predominantly in Sumatra, Borneo and Papua.

Affected by the smoke emanating from Indonesia, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore have raised the haze pollution as a public health concern to the Indonesian government. Both countries have also implemented health preventive measures, such as the cancellation of classes and wearing of protective masks. On the contrary, Indonesia has denounced Malaysia for not being transparent about its own forest fires. It has also pointed out that several Singaporean and Malaysian companies are equally responsible for the open burning in Indonesia.

Some scholars point out that the haze problem is a result of Indonesia’s loose domestic enforcement of fire prevention measures, exacerbated by concerns on good governance and land use planning. Others attribute it to the lack of awareness of the AATHP among environmental law enforcers. More so, some ascribe the crisis to the country’s twelve-year delayed ratification of the agreement, which may be construed as a defensive stance for the affront to its national pride.

The issue of state accountability on the haze crisis raises a major problem of the AATHP—the lack of a powerful regional enforcement mechanism. Enforcement is left to the AMS that are bound to uphold national interests over regional ones. The agreement states that ASEAN merely acts as a coordinator in managing the impact of the haze pollution.3 In particular, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control “shall work on the basis that the national authority will act first…”4 It is also limited “to facilitate co-operation and co-ordination among the Parties…”5

While the AATHP is aligned with the ASEAN principle of non-interference and consensus-based engagement, the same ASEAN Way has enabled each AMS to determine the extent of their regional cooperation. The agreement provides that each AMS shall “take appropriate measures to monitor all fire prone areas, all land and/or forest fires, environmental conditions … and haze pollution arising from such land and/or forest fires…“6. AMS can also “undertake measures to prevent and control activities related to land and/or forest fires that may lead to transboundary haze pollution…”7 These provisions bring to the fore another limit of the agreement—the absence of sanctions for non-compliance of AATHP obligations. The AATHP simply provides each AMS with autonomy to manage its own environmental agenda.

The lack of a credible mechanism to uphold the AATHP reveals the agreement´s non-binding nature. This has impelled Singapore to pass the 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act that holds criminal and civil liabilities against any perpetrators of haze pollution in its territory. Similarly, Malaysia is in the process of passing the Cross-border Pollution Act of 2019 that will allow the government to take action against its citizens or companies that commit pollution offences on land, air, and ocean even when they are outside the country. However, given the issues on conflict of laws, absence of bilateral agreements on the issue, and overlapping AMS national jurisdictions, the effective implementation of these legislations appears to be a great challenge. These national initiatives nonetheless underscore the need to address the limits of the AATHP.

Clearing the sky

Indonesia has reiterated its serious efforts to find solutions to the haze problem. On the immediate term, the government has deployed firefighters to fire-prone regions. The strategy includes keeping the peat soils fire resistant by using water bombing helicopters and cloud seeding. In the long term, the government has enacted policies to restore degraded peatlands and to impose a moratorium on peat clearance. It has also apprehended law violators, including executives of large plantation companies and and threatened to dismiss officials who fail to address the haze issue. Moreover, the government has curbed down Malaysian and Singaporean companies that are responsible for the fires in the country.

Given the indispensability of palm oil production in Indonesia, a business-oriented solution was also considered by adopting a regulatory, incentive-based, and technological mechanism. An example of this is the 2004 Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that sought fire emissions reduction target among palm oil producers. However, the RSPO certification system arguably did not progress due to political and legal issues.

Crossing the horizon

The large smoke emissions from Indonesia have caused air quality issues not only in Singapore and Malaysia but also in the Philippines. In a report by Cebu health officials in September 2019, air particulate matters, which were drifted by the Monsoon winds from the Indonesian fires, have reached unhealthy levels in the city, thus prompting the implementation of protective health measures. The same air quality has also been recorded in some parts of Mindanao. A similar scenario occurred in 2015 when airports in the Visayas were shut down for days due to poor visibility caused by the cross-border haze.

Amid the Indonesian haze crossing over the central and southern parts of the Philippines, a series of forest fires have also been hitting the northern part – the latest of which was in February 2020. As in the case of Indonesian fires, many of the forest blazes in the Philippines have been exacerbated by the dry weather and windy conditions, or have been caused by deliberate land clearing for agricultural purposes. While the Philippines does not experience extreme haze problems, it does practice slash-and-burn farming that contributes to air pollution.

Despite the enactment of Republic Act 3701 that protects Philippine forests, unlawful forms of land clearing such as the slash-and-burn (kaingin) method continue in some parts of the country, particularly in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples (IP). While kaingin is deemed unlawful, IP´s food security is linked to this traditional agricultural land clearing method, which is also protected by the law. The Indigenous People´s Rights Act of 1997 allows the IPs to pursue subsistence and traditional activities based on their knowledge, beliefs and customs. This irreconcilability highlights the gap in Philippine jurisprudence, which is vital in the formulation of a comprehensive transboundary haze solution.

Notwithstanding the hazard posed by cross-border haze to the Philippines, there are no domestic legislations or mechanisms in place to prevent the negative impact of the haze. Besides the Senate Resolution concurring the ratification of the AATHP, there are no other legislative responses thus far, akin to Singapore and Malaysia, that detail measures on how to solve this environmental and public health concern.

Securing the hasp

Identifying and recognizing the haze problem as a collective regional concern is only part of the solution. The implementation of concrete, long lasting solutions in mitigating the haze problem is crucial. Therefore, the effectivity of the AATHP lies in its successful implementation at the national level of each AMS. More importantly, there is an immediate need for ASEAN to establish a set of sanctions and strong dispute-resolutions mechanisms in order to enforce the AATHP effectively.

The current global environment appears to be timely for new insights on how to address the haze crisis. Amid efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic, ASEAN has shown that effective collective engagement emerges when states are convinced that an issue is harmful to their stability and overall wellbeing. This also implies that policy enforcement will likely ensue when national interest is at stake, and when people directly experience a threat. More importantly, collective responses spring from the timely availability of scientific data on the health and economic costs of the common threat.

Considering these, it helps then that ASEAN promote the exchange of information on the gravity of transboundary haze pollution to create new opportunities and ways in overcoming it. When all AMS realize that the AATHP is aligned with their national interests, and that policymakers are convinced that the haze is life-threatening, then effective collective engagement may come about. When hard data on the immediate effects of the haze problem on health, economy, and the environment are made available to the public, citizens may hold their governments and private companies more accountable. An educated and empowered citizenry may thus prove to be the most potent catalyst for change to deal with the haze crisis.

For regional collective engagement to be effective, discussions must shift from high level meetings to the grassroots level. A high public awareness level on the immediate health impact of the haze pollution may yield more attention to the haze problem as a policy concern. The commitment of ASEAN to meet its AATHP timeline amid the coronavirus pandemic will be a litmus test of its responsiveness as a multilateral institution in a dynamic world.

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  1. Slash-and-burn is an affordable method of clearing the land for cultivation that is popular among smallholder farmers in Southeast Asian countries. It has been considered unlawful by most governments due to its environmental impact.
  2. Peatlands become highly combustible when drained of water.
  3. Article 5, ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution
  4. Article 5.2, Ibid.
  5. Annex: Terms of Reference of the ASEAN Co-ordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution, Ibid.
  6. Article 7, Op. cit.
  7. Article 9, Ibid.

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CIRSS Commentaries is a regular short publication of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) focusing on the latest regional and global developments and issues.

The views expressed in this publication are of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs, or the Government of the Philippines.

Lloyd Alexander M. Adducul is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute.