Indonesia’s Parliament on Tuesday voted to ratify a regional haze treaty, finally writing into law its commitment to work with its Asean neighbours to tackle the region’s haze problem.
The move comes 12 years after the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was first signed. Indonesia is the last Asean country to ratify the agreement, which requires that members cooperate and implement measures to prevent, monitor and mitigate transboundary haze pollution.
Signing an international treaty only expresses an intention to comply and a treaty becomes binding only when a country ratifies it.
Forest fires have been spreading in several provinces in Indonesia, with haze from South Sumatra blowing towards Singapore and causing its air pollution index to reach unhealthy levels this week, according to Singapore’s National Environment Agency.
Indonesia had previously not ratified the treaty due to objections from some political parties that it could be an infringement on Indonesia’s sovereignty. But the country has been under renewed pressure to ratify the agreeement since forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan caused the region’s most severe haze crisis last year.
The nine other Asean countries - Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam - have all ratified it as of 2010.
Indonesia’s Environment Minister, Professor Balthasar Kambuaya, said: “This (ratification) is best for our people in Indonesia. So, we will continue, and we still make a lot of efforts, on how we handle forest burning and its impact - haze, especially.”
As part of the agreement, Indonesia has to commit more resources to tackle forest fires and is obliged to respond promptly and provide relevant information such as satellite images sought by other member countries that are or may be affected by transboundary haze.
The information could help to identify which areas the fires are burning and who owns the land. This paves the way for emergency assistance to be dispatched more quickly and also for possible prosecution of those responsible.
This (ratification) is best for our people in Indonesia. So, we will continue, and we still make a lot of efforts, on how we handle forest burning and its impact - haze, especially
Professor Balthasar Kambuaya, Indonesia’s Environment Minister
Ratification a timely move
Neighbouring Singapore issued a statement on Tuesday welcoming the ratification as a “timely” move.
“Transboundary haze pollution has been plaguing our region for decades. There is an urgent need for effective action at the source, including deterrence, investigation and enforcement against errant companies responsible for the haze,” said the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources in a statement.
Singapore “looks forward to closer cooperation with the Indonesian government” together with other Asean partners to tackle the problem, the ministry added.
Singapore just passed its own transboundary haze bill into law last month, which could impose fines of up to S$2 million on errant companies responsible for the fires.
Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Bakakrishnan said that Singapore had the legal right to take action against irresponsible actions of companies that inflict environmental harm within Singapore, including those entities that do not have assets or presence in the city-state.
Indonesia’s forest fires have been largely attributed to the billion-dollar palm oil and paper and pulp industries, which have large tracts of concession areas in Riau, among other provinces. Slash and burn is a common and cheap method to clear away land for new farms and plantations.
Pressured by environmental groups, firms in these industries such as Asia Pulp and Paper and Wilmar International have committed to ‘zero deforestation’ policies, which will require them to ensure that the pulp or palm oil they use is sourced sustainably, and that their entire supply chain does not contain any trace of forest and wildlife habitat destruction.
NGO, companies to work on HCS approach
To effectively implement these commitments, an alliance of private sector companies and NGOs have set up a governance and standardisation body for a methodology known as the High Carbon Stock (HCS) Approach.
In a joint statement issued by Greenpeace International on Tuesday, the group announced a High Carbon Stock (HCS) Steering Group which will work together to “demonstrate that immediate action can be taken to break the link between deforestation and high-risk commodities, such as palm oil and pulp and paper”.
The HCS Approach is being developed as a tool to provide a credible way to identify degraded areas suitable for plantation development and forest areas that merit protection to maintain and enhance carbon, biodiversity and social values.
In practice, the approach is to integrate HCS assessments with High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments, protection of peatlands, and processes to accommodate local communities’ livelihoods and aspirations, respect their rights to their lands and to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) to proposed developments.
The companies involved are Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Golden Veroleum Liberia, Wilmar and the producer members of the Palm Oil Innovation Group, Agropalma and New Britain Palm Oil.
All have agreed to stop any further land clearing for plantations until High Carbon Stock assessments have been completed and management plans enacted to protect High Carbon Stock areas.
The international NGOs involved include Conservation International, Forest Heroes, Forest Peoples’ Programme (FPP), Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, Union of Concerned Scientists and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and as observers, The Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute as well as the technical support organisations Daemeter, Proforest and The Forest Trust (TFT).
The mission of the HCS Steering Group is ‘to ensure that there is a practical, transparent, robust, and scientifically credible approach that is widely accepted to implement commitments to halt deforestation in the tropics while ensuring that the rights, livelihoods and aspirations of local peoples are respected.’
The HCS Approach was first developed by Golden Agri Resources, TFT and Greenpeace in 2011. Since then, it has gained wider support from companies as part of a suite of actions to deliver on their commitments to prevent further deforestation. Various consumer companies including Mars, Nestle, Colgate Palmolive, Neste Oil and Unilever, refer to the HCS methodology in their responsible sourcing policies.
The group which met in Singapore last month nominated an HCS Steering Group to lead a process for further development and global standardisation of the HCS methodology.
This includes seeking review and advice from a science committee and expert guidance based on a range of field trials. To assist its widespread adoption, the Steering Group will develop a process to ensure quality control of the use of the methodology, in coordination with institutions including the RSPO, FSC and the High Conservation Value Resource Network, said the group in the joint statement.