For initiatives that can guide us towards a haze-free future to be meaningfully long-term and sustainable, they cannot merely depend on the goodwill of volunteers. Still, they must have a proper economic engine to support it, writes Quek Xiao Tong
Transboundary Haze Pollution is Southeast Asia’s most publicly identifiable and persistent environmental concern, with an almost annual recurrence since the 1980s. The cause of the haze pollution is peatland forest fires, mainly occurring in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia. Fires on peatlands are notoriously difficult to put out, especially in dry seasons, as dry peat soils are highly flammable, allowing for the fire to smoulder underground for extended periods of time and re-emerge away from its source. Although some of these fires are natural, most are due to the usage of burning in land clearance for agriculture. This method is preferred by both smallholder farmers and large commercial companies (mainly in the palm oil industry) due to its low cost and convenience. Each cycle of transboundary haze pollution has great impacts on the region, ranging from the public health of citizens to the socio-economic impacts due to disruption to business, transport and tourism.
Being a costly recurring problem, with causes and effects localised to the region, a collective regional response has been made through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 1985. Despite the vision for the Roadmap on ASEAN Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control being “Transboundary Haze-Free ASEAN by 2020”, the transboundary haze problem still persists today. Many have attributed the lack of success to the “ASEAN Way”, which emphasises the non-interference in domestic matters of member states while encouraging cooperation through non-confrontational approaches, which, in the case of transboundary haze pollution, limits the other member states’ ability to take concrete legal action against any country that does not fulfil their commitments to the agreements. As the influence of ASEAN initiatives on an inter-state level is limited, there has been a growing trend of the Third Sector Organisations (TSOs) driving the success of ASEAN initiatives. It is important to understand their role from a national perspective.
In the case of Malaysia, it was clear that TSOs active in the transboundary haze pollution played a vital advocacy role in engaging community members. Still, few continuously engage with other actors involved, such as the private sector and the state. However, of the few that do continuously engage with other actors, they take on a myriad of roles that fall under three key themes: enabling, coordinating and facilitating. Some examples of their roles include gathering scientific and technical knowledge and using them as consulting and capacity-building tools for the community, private sector and the government. The lack of knowledge gaps has been often raised in transnational meetings as a barrier that limits the progress of regional efforts. However, even on a national level, these knowledge gaps still need to be filled in order for the efficient implementation of effective strategies. Thus, the role of TSOs at the national level is increasingly important and should be encouraged.
A key challenge faced by the TSOs working on the transboundary haze issue was obtaining sustained support from their stakeholders. As the transboundary haze is seasonal, once the smog is lifted, most people, except those whose livelihood depends directly on peatlands or plantations, will forget about the issue until the next cycle of smog appears. The support mentioned isn’t just about the magnitude of presence in advocacy but also financially. For initiatives that can guide us towards a haze-free future to be meaningfully long-term and sustainable, they cannot merely depend on the goodwill of volunteers. Still, they must have a proper economic engine to support it. Moreover, in the global climate leading to soaring palm oil prices, it seems even more challenging to find appropriate means to support these initiatives that limit the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations.
Interestingly, though ASEAN Way has significantly been criticised for its inability to bring the region to a haze-free state, TSOs that have come to exist as an outcome of ASEAN initiatives have been able to sustainably engage different stakeholders and further garner financial support from external parties, including the European Union, to finance their initiatives. As a result, these TSOs have successfully engaged private sectors in becoming part of their capacity-building process, for businesses to learn how to impart experience and learnings from managing peatlands and other stakeholders for those looking to shift their business model. In addition, they also established channels and platforms to allow for the cross-sharing of knowledge from the local communities to the state and private entities instead of the typical one-way process where expertise usually excludes the local community’s knowledge.
Another challenge faced by the TSOs in Malaysia that work on the transboundary issue is the lack of active engagement from the state. In response to this challenge, a coalition of TSOs has come together to demand legal and institutional changes in Malaysia. They have approached an independent human rights commission, SUHAKAM, to consider the right to clean and haze-free air a basic human right and mandate the government to engage all stakeholders in establishing new laws that allow its people to charge the parties that are responsible for the haze pollution. The report from the human rights commission has yet to be published, but it will be interesting to note the state’s reaction and its relationship with the TSOs henceforth.
To conclude, it is evident that even from a national perspective, the roles of TSOs in the sphere of transboundary haze pollution are becoming increasingly important. It is essential for governments to move away from the traditional methods of governance and towards the concept of new governance, where the state shows a preference for collaborative efforts amongst government and all non-government sectors. This method of governance requires greater coordination, integration and attention to the multi-scalar level of environmental policy regimes. However, given that the transboundary haze pollution is multi-scalar and cuts across multiple sectors, the government will not be able to provide suitable solutions for the hazy issue if it chooses to ignore the multiple stakeholders’ resources already got held off. It is now its duty to allocate funds and build mechanisms to engage in TSOs meaningfully and other stakeholders so that clear skies during dry seasons are no longer an unfathomable thought.
*This research was supported by the LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre Student Dissertation Fieldwork Grant 2021-2022.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.