Smoke gets in our eyes: A way out

Dr Lim Teck Ghee

Returning to Kuala Lumpur after several weeks abroad, the pea soup of polluted air that greeted our descent was the worst I have ever experienced. It seemed to stretch interminably for miles on end far beyond the horizon. The acrid smell of burnt wood induced bouts of coughing amongst fellow passengers as we queued for our taxi ride. “Welcome to foggy Malaysia”, someone remarked in a futile attempt at raising everyone’s spirits.

On board our taxi, the friendly Pak Cik driver asked where we had come from and how long we had been away. He was quickly absorbed in talking about the number one topic currently on the mind of millions in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia as lungs continue to be assailed by the smoke coming from the Sumatra fires.

The taxi driver’s point was indisputable although diplomatically expressed. Neighbours in an apartment or kampung should keep their own as well as the common environment hazard-free and clean. They also need to watch out for each other.

Clearly Indonesia needs to do more to get its act together to prevent the illegal burnings that are an annual occurrence. But as noted by the former Singapore Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong: “Forest and peat fires are not easy to put out. They are not like our lalang or bush fires, small and confined. They burn and smoulder over thousands of acres in remote places far from the reach of fire fighters. So it is best to prevent man-made, illegal fires from being started in the first place.”

Past attempts at preventing illegal fires have failed miserably – not only in Indonesia but also Malaysia. Because they have failed, tens of millions of ringgit and thousands of billions of rupiah have been spent purchasing the latest haze monitoring equipment to keep us informed, and fire-fighting and rain-inducing equipment to help put the fires out. In the meantime, incalculable sums are being lost in terms of the impact on productivity, health, tourism revenue, and other knock-on effects. If the haze persists for a few months, we may be talking of losses of billions of dollars and perhaps even a few points shaved off the region’s GDP.

Preventing illegal fires

How to prevent illegal fires from becoming the default modus operandi of land and forest clearance in Indonesia (as well as Malaysia) is a challenge that our three governments need to put their heads together to resolve instead of sniping on who is to be blamed and why the response to the spread of the haze has been ineffective.

I have one suggestion on how illegal fires in Sumatra from forest clearance can be minimized. The answer is not in high tech or other expensive solutions but in mobilizing community-based cooperation at the grassroots level in spotting and fighting fires where they are located. It would be relatively cheap to recruit a team of fire spotters and fire fighters to work during the three- or four-month period when these fires take place; and train and provide them with some basic fire fighting equipment to put out illegal fires when these are spotted in their immediate neighbourhoods.

Handphone connection for these community fire fighters to a central command would help ensure that any blaze beyond the resources of the local group to extinguish would be quickly identified and dealt with by agencies with greater resources to take on large scale fires. Even if several thousand of such personnel were recruited, the annual cost would probably run to no more than few million dollars.

This would be a cheaper and more cost effective form of investment than what has been spent to date to monitor and fight the fires. The returns in terms of savings from the avoidance of the economic and health costs of the regional haze would easily repay the annual funding of this programme many times over.

As governments move very slowly, the initiative for implementing the community-based fire fighting programme can come from the plantation companies that have a presence in Sumatra. The financial resources to implement the programme can be quickly mobilized by various listed companies and will serve as a useful example of corporate social responsibility.
Eight Malaysian-owned plantation companies whose owners include Sime Darby and KL Kepong have been identified by the Indonesia Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya as using the cheap but outlawed slash-and-burn methods to clear land at the site for many of the fires. This could be an opportunity for them to show to the world that the environmental responsibility badge that they prominently display on their websites is for real.

Such an initiative would be welcomed most of all by the local people not least because it would provide useful supplementary income from the short term employment. At the same time we need to remind ourselves that the local Sumatran communities are the most exposed to the fires, many of them apparently ignited by foreign-owned plantation companies seeking to maximize profits for their shareholders, many of who live in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries. This means that these local communities have the greatest incentive to put out illegal fires as well as prevent them from spreading to a stage where it becomes uncontrollable.

Similar initiatives in community policing and monitoring of the environment to ensure that it is not degraded or harmed in various ways have been successfully practised in many parts of the world. One wonders why they have not been pursued in our part of the world. Perhaps this puzzle may have its answer in the profits being raked in by bureaucrats and their allies in the consultancy and business world as the haze provides another opportunity for misplaced or irrelevant procurement and rent seeking.

Wake up call to all

Finally the haze serves as a good wake up call to all of us whose actions are impacting adversely on the environment. Whilst it is easy to be critical of the ineffectiveness of the Indonesian authorities in fighting the fires, we should look into the mirror and be aware that our treatment of the environment in Malaysia or Singapore or in the countries where our businesses operate is far from being exemplary or problem-free

The answers to any environment crisis are largely in the hands of those engaged in exploiting the environment or of the policy makers. Incompetent governments, irresponsible businesses, an apathetic public only aroused when their throat is literally being choked and not before then — this is where we stand in our attitude to air pollution management. Unfortunately, it is the same with the way in which we are managing all our other resources.

  1. #1 by Winston on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 5:17 pm

    Well, well, well.
    The good doctor seemed to be contradicting himself.
    As he had said, the Indonesian Environment Minister had identified eight Malaysian companies as using the slash-and-burn method to clear land.
    Now, with the tinder dry conditions prevailing at the moment, once a fire is deliberately started to burn the trees that were felled, it will be next to impossible to quell the flames and the smoke!
    So, literally all fires are big ones and will not be within the power of the community fire fighters he had suggested to fight them.
    As for equipping them with handphones to call for help, remember that the fires usually took place in very remote areas and are very unlikely to be within the reach of the handphone communication towers.
    As for his comment that governments move very slowly, well, the Indonesian government has ten years or more to move!
    Isn’t that long enough, for even a tortoise?
    So, there shouldn’t be any excuse!
    Unless there is a deliberate attempt not to implement anything agreed at the umpteenth meetings they have among the affected parties!!!
    He also talked about incompetent governments but it looked more like corrupted governments are at work!
    So, why not call a spade, a spade!!!!

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 6:09 pm

    ///”(It)Does not matter if the companies belong to Indonesia or Malaysia or any other country. But, if they are from here, we are going to suggest to the Malaysian government to get the companies to pay compensation to Malaysians and also to the Indonesians who were badly affected by the haze,” Lim told reporters after the meeting./// – Lim Guan Eng

    Lim Guan Eng was right. The PRACTICAL way to end the annual haze problem is to demand for compensation. The plantation companies will feel the pain if they have to dig out money from their pockets to compensate the haze sufferers.

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