Balancing development goals to fix Southeast Asia's 'haze'

Haze caused by illegal forest burning and agricultural land clearing in Indonesia reaches Singapore and blurs its skyline. Photo by: Guo Qi / CC BY-NC-ND

Where there is smoke, there is fire — which aid could help mitigate.

Nearly every year, huge parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are choked by heavy smoke and dust particles — popularly known in the region as "haze" — caused by illegal forest burning and agricultural land clearing that pose serious environmental, health and even economic implications to these Southeast Asian countries.

Haze has become a persistent problem in this part of the region, choking economic activities as well as development progress and accelerating climate change that by far outweigh the short-term economic gains for farmers.

Peter Holmgren, head of the Jakarta-based Center for International Forestry Research, believes that addressing the forest fires and haze issue should not be a tug of war between different development goals, particularly economic and environmental.

It should rather be moving toward a balance between the two in order to achieve sustainability.

“Between economic and sustainable development goals, it has to be a balance,” Holmgren told Devex. “We cannot, on one hand, say that economic progress takes overhand at the expense of the environment. We can't also say that environmental protection leads to missing all forms of economic growth. It's quite obvious that there has to be a balanced approach that we need to reach.”

He added: “If we look at the establishment of oil palm plantations, it is successful economically. It's one of the more profitable land uses at the moment, that's why we're also seeing rapid expansion. In the economic sense, it is of course contributing to development. Obviously, from an environmental point of view, we see some issues … [including] enormous emissions of greenhouse gases and losses of habitat.”

Damaging consequences

Last June, forest fire-induced haze — primarily from Indonesia — almost paralyzed Singapore, halting the nation’s economic activity for a couple of days.

In a report, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies tagged the June 2013 haze episode as the worst in the country’s history, particularly in the last 16 years, with the pollutants in the air reaching an all-time high of 371 psi. Anything above the 300 threshold is considered hazardous with the 400 level branded as life-threatening, according to CIFOR scientist David Gaveau.

The Singaporean think tank even announced that the haze issue “now appears irresolvable” given the gravity of the situation.

Despite the economic gains brought by agriculture — an after-effect of forest clearing — with Indonesia becoming the world's leader in palm oil production, the social and environmental damage is overwhelming. In 1997 alone, forest fires cost around $4.5 billion and over 200,000 people from the three countries had to seek medical attention due to haze-induced health complications at the time.


One of the major causes of these forest fires and recurring haze episodes is corporate-backed agricultural activities.

Holmgren explained that they are getting a sense that the “majority of farmers are made by large-scale agriculture activities [which] represents some form of investment in huge agricultural businesses” with mechanical clearing of land costing $250 per hectare, compared to fire clearing that can only cost a meager $5 per hectare of land.

To attain the balance between the different development goals, the CIFOR boss laid out three areas that need improvement:

1. Sectors should work together — “It is not easy or even possible to find the solutions if the various sectors continue to work in isolation, in this case the forestry and agriculture sectors must work together to find solutions to a greater extent on what's happening today.”

2. Forest and land values need to be recognized — “The value of forests and lands needs to be recognized in the planning and various decisions that are made on land use [especially on policy].”

3. Address governance issues — “An important mechanism is to resolve governance issues at different levels and make that what is decided at different levels, from national, provincial, and local are linked together.”

This gap in policy making and implementation is a recurring issue over the last decade in Indonesia, and in other parts of the region, particularly in environmental issues including forestry. Both Holmgren and Gaveau said it remains a big stumbling block in pushing efforts for a more concerted regional haze and forest fire mitigation approach, with national and local governments finding it hard to streamline their processes.

Indonesia also remains in the spotlight given its failure to ratify the regional action plan to mitigate forest fires and haze which the rest of ASEAN supports, and despite Jakarta promising to ratify the protocol by 2015.

“There are actions on different time horizons… There is political and policy developments that seem to be happening. It includes discussions of countries in the region that appears to be leading to some new policy arrangements. We're seeing some discussions on the regional haze agreement that is picking up [and] the momentum is strong,” Holmgren said.


Moving forward, what are the challenges — including financial, technical, and policy assistance — that the international aid and development community can help address?

“For the shorter term, the costs are very high to mitigate and fight fires. The challenge lies in preventing fires from happening as well as outreach, education, and communication to stakeholders to avoid using fires is very important,” explained Holmgren.

Obviously, he added, there is a need to allocate resources from public funds in the long-term to support the research, the development of governance arrangements — and also from private sector because the investments on sustainable land use are crucial.

Holmgren concluded: “This is a very complex issue and I don't think there's one funding solution to solve all the underlying causes. I think we need to look at diverse approaches on funding and better land use... Obviously, official development assistance can play a role particularly in the public sector investments provided that it is in line with the national interests. Assistance could also be in the form of technical and legal assistance on policy drafting and revision.”

The haze problem will be one of the main issues discussed at the Forests Asia Summit in May, co-hosted by CIFOR and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and which will address opportunities for research and trans-boundary cooperation to help mitigate and prevent the fires, among other issues.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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