KUALA LUMPUR – Oct 5, 2015: Regional grouping Asean must relentlessly persuade the Indonesian government to accept foreign assistance in controlling forest fires so that trans-boundary haze can be effectively mitigated.
Such was the opinion of Professor Mohd Talib Latif, the deputy director of the Institute for Environment and Development, who said it would be selfish for Indonesia or any other country to refuse help being offered to control forest fires which caused the haze.
Talib told The Mole that unlike other types of pollution, air pollution, particularly haze and smog are not fixed to any specific location as it can be easily spread to other areas and countries via wind current.
“I know that the Indonesian government has been claiming that they can handle the rampant forest fires on their own but this year’s haze proved that they can’t do it alone.
“The burning of forests in Indonesia has been going on since 1994 and the haze due to such burning has been an annual occurrence for countries in Southeast Asia.
“So Asean needs to be firm and aid the Indonesian government with suitable corrective measures to combat forest fires because if we don’t help them then we too will suffer the aftereffects of the burnings,” he said.
Talib added that Asean can aid the Indonesian government through various ways such as performing cloud seeding, water-bombing and mobilizing fire extinguishing personnel from their respective countries to areas that are susceptible to forest fires in Indonesia.
Aside from extending short term aids, Talib said that Asean must collectively educate not only the Indonesians, but also the rest of people living in Southeast Asia on the importance of preserving and sustaining the environment.
“It’s not just the Indonesians…the slash and burn methods are rampantly practiced in almost every country in the Southeast Asia.
“I agree that these methods are the easiest, quickest and cheapest way to replenish the soil with nutrient.
“But it comes with a hazardous price that none of us can afford to pay in the long run,” said Talib.
Yasmin Rashid, the president of environmental non-governmental organisation EcoKnights shared similar views on the need for a regional cooperation to curb the rampant forest fires in Indonesia.
She said there has been the lack of political will amongst leaders in the region, especially the Indonesian leaders, which had caused such issues to remain unsolved since the late 90s.
According to her, Malaysian leaders were also guilty as they do not seem to take the impact of haze and smog seriously enough, especially on human health, economy and tourism.
Yasmin also blamed plantation owners whom she claimed to be responsible for causing the forest fires to clear land for cash crops cultivation.
She said they also need to chip-in ideas for a solution to mitigate forest fires.
“The palm oil boys are keeping mum, as you would have noticed, there’s minimal statements from them.
“There is no clear transparency today as to where these fires originate and whose land it belongs to.
“In an era with technological advancements, and real time data monitoring, we are still left in the lurch playing the guessing game as to who is the culprit.
“Everyone’s pointing fingers at the Indonesian government but we are also very well aware that there are major plantations or land in Indonesia that are owned by Singaporeans or Malaysians,” she said.
On the Indonesian government’s reluctance in receiving foreign aids, Yasmin deemed that it was “fishy” for the leaders of the country to do so.
She speculated that there might be a conspiracy brewing behind the issue.
“Even Greenpeace Indonesia offered to come up with a web portal to release information about the source of the haze but the Indonesian government was not supportive of it.
“I think the owners of these plantations could be prominent politicians, business people and they could possibly be Singaporeans and Malaysians.
“At this point, we don’t know, as all of these information were kept secret”, she said adding that the trans-boundary haze proved that it was timely for Asean to pay more attention to environmental issues instead of just economic matters.
The haze has been choking Malaysians since last month and the environmental crisis has also caused other serious problem which include flights and major events to be cancelled.
Experts have warned that this year’s flare-up is on track to equal or surpass an infamous 1997 haze outbreak that sent pollution soaring to record highs and caused an estimated $9 billion in economic damage across the region.