Activists urge ASEAN to enact laws to combat air pollution from illegal forest burning

Malaysia is currently experiencing a situation where noxious white smoke has blanketed the country. On October 10, Kuala Lumpur recorded the highest Air Pollution Index (API) reading of over 167, which is classified as “unhealthy”, according to the Malaysian Air Pollution Index Management System (APIMS) website.

Github (an AQI-to-cigarettes calculator) demonstrates that being exposed to Kuala Lumpur’s API for 24 hours is comparable to the health effects of smoking around 4.29 cigarettes per day. Malaysia has blamed the haze on Indonesia, which started in the dry season from illegal “slash and burn” land clearing, largely to make way for oil palm plantations. 

Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, has recently contacted his Indonesian counterpart to address the urgent matter of deteriorating air quality caused by the haze. 

In response, Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, has claimed that there has been a decrease in forest fires in certain areas of Indonesia. Furthermore, she stated that there is no evidence of haze moving towards Malaysia and she denied any responsibility.

Despite more than two decades of haze, ASEAN has yet to enact laws concerning transboundary haze pollution. 

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Regional Campaigner Strategist Heng Kiah Chun commented: “Enacting a domestic Transboundary Haze Act is necessary to serve as a deterrent, especially as there are bad apples in the industry. Such an act can provide legal grounds for each country to institutionalize checks and balances, ensuring that their respective companies operate responsibly.”

Kuala Lumpur is currently experiencing a situation in which a noxious white smoke has blanketed the city. 

Culprit behind haze

Slash-and-burn farming is largely responsible for the haze. From the mid-1980s onwards, Indonesia has been extensively clearing its forests to make way for profitable palm oil plantations. One cost-effective method of clearing logged woodland is through controlled burning. 

The rapid growth of oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia has led to a higher demand for extensive land areas. This not only affects natural tropical forests but also includes peatland forests. 

Studies have found that fires occurring in the peat swamp forest zone release a significantly higher amount of smoke and haze compared to other types of fires. This means that for each hectare burned, the resulting smoke and haze is disproportionately greater. 

When the El Niño phenomenon experiences positive phases, there is a notable increase in the duration and intensity of fire seasons. This correlation has been observed over the years, highlighting the impact of El Niño on fire activity.

The 2021 complaint document submitted to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) disclosed that 50 Malaysian corporations had a stake in more than 200 plantations. Legally, these firms had a legal claim to a combined 3.5 million hectares of overseas oil palm plantation land in 2013.

Out of all foreign direct investments (FDI) from Malaysia in oil palm land, Indonesia was the biggest beneficiary, having received 52 percent of the total, which amounted to 1,802,000 hectares. A separate study which looked at Malaysian overseas FDI in Indonesia showed that approximately 60 percent of the Malaysian land holdings were already being utilized for agriculture.

Accusations emerged on September 12, 2019 that “subsidiaries” of Malaysian companies in Indonesia had started fires on their plantations. Indonesia’s environment minister pointed out that the subsidiaries were Sime Indo Agro of Sime Darby Plantation, Sukses Karya Sawit, of IOI Corporation, Rafi Kamajaya Abadi of TDM Berhad, and PT Adei Plantation and Industry of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.

At a global level, numerous large agribusiness firms have made significant pledges to abolish deforestation and burning from their palm oil and pulpwood supply chains. In Southeast Asia, nevertheless, in spite of these promises from the private sector and current national regulations that forbid the use of fire, peatlands and native forests continue to burn annually.

Heng said: “Companies are supposed to have supply chains that meet their No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) commitments – meaning that they don’t use product from companies that destroy rainforests. NDPE provides a great platform for the industry to reform and repair the damage to its reputation. But the industry’s failure to implement these NDPE policies is doing more damage to the sector’s reputation.”

Greenpeace, along with a group of civil society organizations, submitted an air pollution complaint to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM).

ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution

The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), initially signed in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia as its first signatory, was established in 2002. It took effect in November 2003. Indonesia, where the origin of the haze is, nonetheless, took 12 years prior to ratifying the THPA in 2014.

Between 2003 and 2019, the concern of haze pollution has been intensely discussed among ASEAN nations as land and forest fires continued to happen almost each year during the dry season, especially in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2019.

The timeline of the AATHP (2002-2019). Image credit: AnnJil Chong

ASEAN member states formed a task force to create the Roadmap on ASEAN Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control with Means of Implementation (2016 to 2020). To date, the execution of the roadmap has faced considerable delays, hampering efforts to tackle the persistent problem of haze in the region. Compounding this issue is the absence of any sign of the new roadmap (2023 to 2030). Table 1 displays the completion rates for each strategy.

StrategyMeasure of ProgressCompletion Rate
1. Implementation of AATHP Establishment of ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control (ACC) in 2016 and its full operation within 2018Institutionalization of early international haze assistanceEstablishment and full operation of all National Monitoring and Warning Systems, coordinated by ACC Effective implementation of preventive measuresModerate  Low Moderate  High 
2. Sustainable Management of Peatlands for Peatland Fires PreventionDecrease in the number of hotspots in peatland areaDecrease in area of peatland burntDecrease in allowable controlled-burning casesIncrease of protected peatland areaIncrease of area of peatland with zero-burning (managed by companies and local communities)Moderate ModerateModerateLowLow 
3. Sustainable management of agricultural land and forest (non-peatland) to prevent large-scale land and forest fires Reduction of the number of hotspot and/or size of burnt areaDecrease open burning activities in the agricultural land and forest areas by local communities and private companiesNumber of regulations and/or incentives for zero burning practiceModerate Moderate  Low 
4. Strengthening Policies, Laws, Regulations and their Implementations, including to facilitate exchange of experience and relevant information among enforcement authorities of the Parties in accordance with the AATHP Article 16 (f)Adequate number of laws and regulations developedEffective enforcement of laws and regulations High Moderate 
5. Enhancing Cooperation, Exchange of Information and Technology, and Strengthening of Capacity of Institutions at All Levels of Roadmap on ASEAN Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control with Means of ImplementationNumber of activities undertaken Levels which the activities took place Sources of funding support HighModerateModerate 
6. Enhancing Public Awareness and Cross-Sectoral and Stakeholders Participation Adequate number of campaign programsAdequate number of cross-sectoral and/or multi-stake holder dialogues/forumsAdequate number of projects with cross-sectoral and/or multi-stakeholder participationEffective implementation of projects with cross-sectoral and/or multi-stakeholder participationAdequate number of private sectors implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) with a focus on forest and/or land fires prevention and controlEffective implementation of CSRModerateModerate Low Moderate Low  Low 
7. Securing adequate resources from multi-stakeholders for preventing transboundary hazeAdequate number of resources mobilizedEffective mobilisation of resourcesAdequate number of multi-stakeholder contributionEffective contribution from multi-stakeholdersModerateLowModerateLow 
8. Reducing health and environmental risks and protecting global environment Common database created and maintainedAssessment and monitoring of the health, economic, social, and environmental impacts of haze undertakenHealth and environmental impacts avoided and/or reduced Effective communication to raise public awareness about haze pollution, health and environmental risks. ModerateLow  Moderate High 
Total (31)Low

Table 1. The Completion Rates of Each Measure of Progress for the ASEAN Haze Free Roadmap Strategy (2016-2020). Very Low = 0.00 – 1.00; Low = 1.01 – 2.00; Moderate = 2.01 – 3.00; High = 3.01 – 4.00; Very High = 4.01 – 5.00. Table credit: Executive Summary of the Final Review of the Roadmap on ASEAN Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control with Means of Implementation (2022), pp. 6-7.

Greenpeace recently showcased artwork near Komtar in Penang, aimed at bringing attention to the pressing issue of haze in the air. 

Call for domestic implementation of THPA

Greenpeace, which advocates for clean air as a fundamental human right, is urging ASEAN governments to: 

•          Develop a regional legal framework to hold corporate entities accountable for domestic forest fires due to peatland clearance and agricultural residue burning.

•          Mandate all companies known for clearing out forests to publicly disclose and publish concession maps to be shared across all ASEAN member states to improve transparency in their supply chains.

•          Agree on a standardized air quality indicator to be used in all ASEAN member states to monitor and track air pollution based on a common methodology and act accordingly.

Also, Heng urged ASEAN governments to promptly consider implementing the THPA domestically. This call for action highlights the importance of collective efforts in tackling this environmental challenge.

“Up to this point, just Singapore has implemented the THPA domestically. This act permits the government to impose sanctions on those who cause haze pollution within Singapore’s boundaries,” Heng said. “It also grants individuals the ability to pursue legal action against private companies located in other countries that are responsible for causing or exacerbating haze pollution.”

He stressed that the enforcement of THPA in Malaysia should be prioritized over using ASEAN regional diplomatic cooperation to postpone or delay discussion. 

“The THPA, which was introduced in 2019 but unfortunately scrapped in August 2020, is particularly important considering the involvement of Malaysian-owned companies in forest fires in Indonesia,” he said. “Through domestic implementation of this act, governments can effectively enforce regulations, impose penalties on offenders, and strengthen cooperation among member states. This will help ensure that measures are in place to prevent and address transboundary haze pollution effectively.

“The implementation of the THPA not only protects human health but also safeguards biodiversity, mitigates climate change impacts, and preserves valuable ecosystems. This demonstrates a commitment to sustainable development and responsible environmental stewardship within the ASEAN region.”

When asked about his thoughts on the Malaysian government dispatching letters to Malaysian-owned plantation companies operating in Indonesia to ensure their compliance with laws and prevent burning, Heng responded: “Instead of pointing fingers at each other, all governments can take this opportunity to prove that their companies are not contributing to haze locally and abroad.

“Clean air is a basic human right. Stopping forest fires is at the heart of international climate change agreements. This is why we are against forest fires. If we do not an end to forest fires, we cannot effectively address climate change.”

All photos credit unless otherwise stated: Greenpeace SEA

Top photo: Heng Kiah Chun, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Regional campaigner strategist.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more