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Jakarta Post

Why Indonesia must ratify the ASEAN haze pollution treaty

  • Fika Yulialdina Hakim

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, July 14, 2013   /  11:26 am

In several countries, forest fires commonly occur within their territory particularly during hot weather. Indonesia, Australia and the US also face forest fires.

The US National Interagency Fire Center reported that in 2004-2013, more than 2.6 million acres of forest were burned in the states of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

Last month fires burned 16,000 acres in Black Forest near Colorado Springs. This tragedy killed 2 people, destroyed more than 500 homes and displaced thousands of people. Officials said that fire was the most destructive on record in the State.

Sadly, 19 fire fighters died when dealing with forest fires at Yarnell Hill, Arizona recently. This was the third biggest loss of firefighters in US history after the 9/11 terrorists attack in New York.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Last January, a record-breaking heat wave, high winds and drought hit Tasmania. Fires burned 100,000 hectares and destroyed more than 200 homes in central, eastern and southern parts of Tasmania. Julia Gillard, Australian prime minister at that time, was struck by the random nature of the destruction on the island.

Almost every year, mainly in the dry season, forest fires hit Indonesia. Despite the climate factor, forest fires are usually caused by the slash-and-burn methods used to clear and open land for plantations.

Unfortunately, the wind carries the haze caused by these forest fires accross borders and spreads it to neighboring countries. Unlike in Australia and the US, haze pollution resulting from forest fires has not only affected Indonesian territory, but also Malaysia and Singapore. This is called transboundary haze pollution.

To mitigate transboundary haze pollution, cooperation among countries is a concrete and possible way forward. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has put a lot of effort into finding the best solution for many years. ASEAN announced the formation of a joint committee to study haze pollution and set up an expert panel to deal with the haze problem as a meteorological network for early warning in 1992.

ASEAN produced the ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution which articulated several concrete measures to improve regional cooperation on transboundary pollution without any legal binding effect in 1995. Later in 1999, ASEAN adopted a '€œZero Burning Policy'€ in order to eliminate burning as a method for land-clearance in agriculture.

This policy encourages ASEAN member countries to implement it in their respective national legal systems. However, this policy could not be fully implemented due to challenges within ASEAN countries.

Eventually, 10 ASEAN governments, including Indonesia, signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution on June 10, 2002 in Kuala Lumpur. The agreement came into force on Nov. 25, 2003, but currently Indonesia is the only country which has not ratified the treaty.

The agreement emphasizes the prevention and monitoring of transboundary haze pollution as a result of forest fires through national efforts and international cooperation. The agreement also led to the formation of an ASEAN Coordinating Center for Transboundary Haze Pollution that will facilitate regional anti-haze efforts and resource distribution and serve as a central focal point for emergency response efforts. In addition, the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Control Fund was also created to provide funding for the implementation of the agreement although the contribution is made on a voluntary basis.

Other principles of the agreement highlight preventive mechanisms and the precautionary approach. Obviously, Indonesia has sovereignty to exploit its own resources but bears the responsibility of ensuring such activities within its jurisdiction do not damage the environment and harm the human health of the countries or areas beyond its national jurisdiction. This principle is reminiscent of the Trail Smelter Case confronting Canada and the United States in 1941. The US won the case and Canada was held responsible for the transboundary pollution.

In conclusion, if Indonesia ratified the agreement, the transboundary haze pollution could be resolved by joint responsibility within ASEAN countries as cooperation is strongly encouraged by the treaty. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono might not have to apologize to the people in Singapore and Malaysia for the impact of the forest fire. Indonesia would only be responsible for bringing perpetrators of the forest fire to justice.

The writer, who obtained LL.M from the Utrecht University in 2008, works for a law firm in Jakarta.

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