Singapore, Indonesia jostle over anti-haze measures

Jakarta bristles at the city state’s summoning of Indonesian businessmen for questioning under its extraterritorial Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

The prospects for greater international collaboration in the effort to prevent another Southeast Asian haze crisis hit a bump in the road this week, with Jakarta taking umbrage at Singapore’s threat to detain an Indonesian businessman and threatening to cancel bilateral agreements between the two countries.

The Indonesian environment and forestry minister said she was reviewing all haze-related partnerships with the city state, which lies downwind from Indonesia’s Sumatra and is usually engulfed in smoke when the giant island’s dried-out peatlands go up in flames, usually every year.

Some programs would likely be terminated, Siti Nurbaya said, adding that she had instructed local governments to refrain from any collaboration with Singapore for the time being.

“We uphold the law in an independent manner based on Indonesia’s own laws and regulations,” the minister told foresthints.news. “We certainly don’t rely on data and information derived from other countries as the basis for our legal processes.”

Nurbaya did not say why she had embarked on the review, but her comments followed Singapore’s summoning of an Indonesian agribusiness executive under the city state’s extraterritorial Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which allows it to fine companies for polluting its air, even if the firm is located outside the country. Slash-and-burn land clearing by oil palm and pulpwood interests is a prime cause of the annual fires.

Singapore recently issued notices to six Indonesia-based companies under the act, requiring them to explain in an interview with the city state how they planned to prevent a recurrence of the devastating fires, which last year sickened half a million people and pumped an inordinate amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Of course, the modality is how this is going to be done, when and how far and so forth. But we have a big achievement on that, because in the past, there’s a lot of pushback on sharing information, even anonymous information. 

Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore

Only two companies responded, Singapore’s environment minister said in a speech last month. The executive for whom the city state’s National Environment Agency had obtained the court warrant represented one of the four derelict firms.

“If the [executive] enters Singapore, he can be detained by NEA officers for the purpose of investigations,” the National Environment Agency said in a statement.

Jakarta has always objected to the transboundary haze law, and a foreign ministry spokesman said the archipelago “strongly protested” the threat to detain the plantation executive.

“We stress that Singaporean regulations should not harm the good trade and cooperation that we have now, especially between our businesses,” ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said at a press briefing.

Singapore defended the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act as consistent with international law and infringing upon no nation’s sovereignty.

“The THPA adds to the collective efforts to hold errant companies accountable for their irresponsible actions which have been affecting the well-being of people in the region, including the people of Indonesia who have been the worst affected,” its foreign ministry said. “We are therefore puzzled as to why Indonesia does not welcome these efforts.”

The diplomatic spat follows a meeting earlier this month between the haze-hit nations of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei, after which the Singaporean environment minister said the countries had reached a new agreement for sharing information, without giving specifics.

“Of course, the modality is how this is going to be done, when and how far and so forth,” Masagos Zulkifli said after the meeting. “But we have a big achievement on that, because in the past, there’s a lot of pushback on sharing information, even anonymous information. So in this case, at least we have an agreement and we can move forward on to this.”

Singapore has been particularly vocal in requesting that the Indonesian government share the concession maps of plantation firms in its territory, so that the city state can scrutinize companies with large numbers of hotspots on their land.

The maps, though, have been a touchy subject in the archipelago. Three years ago, the corporate and NGO members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the world’s largest association for ethical production of the commodity, agreed in the name of transparency to publish its grower members’ concession maps.

To date, though, the maps have yet to be released, with growers in Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two palm oil producing countries, claiming they want to share their maps, but their governments won’t let them.

Indonesia’s land minister recently said he saw no problem with companies sharing their own maps, but the archipelago’s growers maintained they would not release their maps until their Malaysian competitors did.

The Malaysian government has made no public comment on the issue, but the country’s palm oil companies claim that officials have told them the country’s secrecy laws prohibit the maps’ release — a contention disputed by environmentalists who think the growers are “pulling a fuss,” in the words of the Malaysian Nature Society’s Balu Perumal.

It was not clear how Indonesia’s review of its collaborations with Singapore would affect the haze-hit nations’ plan to carry out a joint study on the economic, social and health impact of the 2015 fires, whose announcement was the major outcome of the meeting held earlier this month.

This article is written by Philip Jacobson and republished with permission from Mongabay.

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