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High hopes for Jokowi to tackle haze pollution

Indonesia's president-elect has reportedly backed Singapore's proposed stiffer fines for haze causers. But given sovereignty issues involved, experts urge Jakarta to proactively take on investigating and policing.

On July 30, Sonny Keraf, a former Indonesian environment minister and adviser to president-elect Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, said that Indonesia would back Singapore's plan to increase fines on those responsible for haze pollution, according to a Bloomberg report. The proposed penalties for illegal emissions can reach some 1.6 million USD.

It signaled the future president's intentions to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, which suffer the most from the haze caused by Indonesia's extensive fires. Last year, Singapore witnessed its worst-ever air quality on record.

In early July, the city-state's government proposed stiffer fines of up to 1.6 million USD for companies causing unhealthy levels of haze. Under the recently proposed bill on transboundary haze pollution, a firm can be fined up to 80,000 USD for each day of unhealthy haze that blankets Singapore for a continuous period of 24 hours or more.

In addition, companies that fail to comply with notices to take preventive measures during a period of haze could be fined up to an additional 40,000 USD a day. The maximum penalty for each of the offenses is capped at 1.6 million USD.

Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers are seen covered in haze in Kuala Lumpur on March 4, 2014.

According to the bill by proposed by Singapore, companies can be fined up to 1.6 million USD for illegal emissions

Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University and a legislator in Singapore's parliament, says that the adviser's statements "demonstrate Jokowi's awareness of Indonesia's place within ASEAN and the importance of bilateral and multilateral cooperation."

Indonesia has been perceived as slow in responding to the haze - a type of dirty fog, in which ash and other particles caused by burning and pollution accumulate and create a thick, polluted low layer of dust in the atmosphere. Although its causes are disputed, Peter Kanowski, deputy director-general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) says that since 1997 some corporate plantation growers have been deliberately lighting fires in peatland areas in Indonesia as it is often the cheapest way to clear large areas of land.

Haze remains a contentious issue within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten-member group that includes Malaysia and Singapore. In 2002, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was reached, a legally binding treaty that commits all its nations to cooperation for the prevention and monitoring of the problem. Indonesia is the only country of the group which has yet to ratify the agreement.

Jakarta's refusal to do so has been "detrimental to relations between Indonesia and ASEAN," said Tan, as most of the fires originate in its territory, namely in Sumatra. Even though burning is illegal in Indonesia and a moratorium on logging has been in place since 2011, the practices continue to rage throughout the country.

According to a 2012 study by the World Resources Institute, Indonesia's rate of deforestation became the fastest in the world, overtaking Brazil, with 840,000 hectares cut down in that year alone - almost twice as many as in the South American nation, whose forest area is four times larger than that of Indonesia.

The haze issue also has an enormous economic impact, says Tan, affecting businesses and tourist arrivals, since it often leads to airport and seaport closures. Experts fear it might get even worse, given that the number of fire alerts registered during the first six months of 2014 has already surpassed that of the same period last year. The 1997 haze crisis led to a shutdown in Singapore and ended up costing the region some seven billion USD over a three-month period.

The fine print

It is important to point out, however, that statements made by Jokowi's adviser included a key point: the fines cannot threaten Indonesian sovereignty. Tan says the main concern of the 53-year-old Jakarta governor is how the Singapore bill - which has extra-territorial reach - will be implemented. There are no specifics on how Singaporean authorities will investigate possible offenses before imposing the fines on Indonesian companies.

Gregory Poling says that it is too soon to predict exactly what the president-elect is thinking. But he assumes that Jokowi's biggest concern is to ensure that Indonesia "plays a prime role in policing and identifying actors involved in setting fires, rather than allowing Singapore to identify and fine perpetrators without input from Jakarta." It's a sensitive issue, since previous attempts to deal with transboundary haze sparked a considerable amount of resentment in some circles in Indonesia and are perceived as attempts by its neighbors to meddle in the country's internal affairs, he added.

Although the extent of the collaboration remains to be seen, Tan says that "the statements have set the right tone for an issue that has undermined ASEAN cooperation and unity for close to two decades." The parliamentarian is of the view that "Singapore could not have asked for a better first response from Indonesia's president-elect - so half the battle is won in that regard."

The bigger half

Indonesia President candidate Joko Widodo answers questions from journalists during an inspection to Pluit Reservoir on July 22, 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

According to an interview given by a close adviser, future president Joko Widodo will back Singappore's legislation, so long as it doesn't threaten Indonesian sovereignty

Bruno Vander Velde, senior writer at the Jakarta-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a scientific institute funded by foreign governments, told DW the collaboration among all stakeholders is essential to tackle the haze pollution - "and this is starting to happen on a larger scale."

Nonetheless, Velde indicated that more research was needed to understand the various causes of the haze and the legal and enforcement structures in place in Indonesia. "Some of these structures conflict with each other, and on-the-ground enforcement remains a problem," Velde added.

However, to fight the haze there must be information on who is starting these fires, something that has been lacking thus far. Poling says that Singapore will require Indonesian assistance to consistently identify responsible companies to be fined. "Only Jakarta can really identify who owns what tracts of land and is therefore responsible for any burning that takes place," he added.

And this is especially important so that Singapore can "appropriately fine those companies intentionally setting fires to clear land, or those being grossly negligent in clearing brush and preventing fires, rather than those who might just be the victims of drought or accident."