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Indonesian Fires Reveal Unfulfilled Environmental Promises

  • Brian Padden

Singapore and Malaysia recently suffered through the worst air pollution crisis in 16 years, due mostly to slash-and-burn deforestation fires in Indonesia. The president of Indonesia has apologized and promised to investigate the cause, but his public commitment to reduce pollution and protect the environment, at least in the short term, have not slowed the rate of deforestation.

It's an annual occurrence in the dry season: a smoky, hazardous haze blankets southern Malaysia and Singapore. This year it was so bad that in some affected areas there was a 100 percent rise in the number of asthma cases. Hundreds of schools were closed, and the government of Malaysia distributed gas masks.

The source of the pollution lies across the Malacca Strait in Indonesia where illegal burning of forests to clear space for palm oil plantations continues unabated.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono offered a public apology.

"For what has happened, as president, I apologized and asked for the understanding of brothers in Singapore and Malaysia," he said.

The Indonesian president promised to prosecute anyone involved in illegal slash-and-burn activities. Eight Southeast Asian companies are reportedly under investigation.

But the ongoing deforestation seems to contradict past promises. In 2009, President Yudhoyono pledged to reduce by 26 percent greenhouse gas emissions, caused mostly by deforestation. And in 2011, he instituted a moratorium protecting designated forest areas. In exchange, environmentally conscious Norway pledged $1 billion to support these efforts.

Ariana Alisjahbana at the World Resources Institute says local officials are not supporting the national plan.

“Actually it’s a lack of coordination and lack of enforcement. So when we look over all the different rules Indonesia has on the books, theoretically speaking they’re very, very good ones. But they’re just not enforced," said Alisjahbana.

Although the economic incentive to replace forests with farms hampers conservation, Alisjahbana says long-term progress is being made.

“Only four percent of the fires, of the fire alerts, happened in protected areas. So I think one of the really good solutions is to actually, you know, designate the area as protected," she said.

But she says a greater commitment to stop the slash-and-burn deforestation through incentives and strict penalties for violations is needed.