ASEAN Smoke Haze and Hidden Solutions


This article reveals hidden solutions for the haze problems known to terrorize some ASEAN countries through a less-discussed perspective: business-oriented solution. After showing the attempts to solve this problem from the global (international), regional (ASEAN), local (Indonesia), and business (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or the RSPO) levels, this article shows the gross results of each method. The conclusion out of this revelation is that the closest method to solve this problem is the business-oriented solutions through the RSPO or boycotts.

Peat fires

This article is divided into the following parts. First, the article defines the haze problem and its likely causes. Second, the article shows the attempts (political, legal, regional) to curb this annual phenomenon and how these attempts achieve negative results as the problem returns every year. Third, the article reveals some hidden, down-to-earth solutions to this problem and all of their ramifications. This article, however, discusses no solution for the small-holders or native farmers in Indonesia who might have used sustainably the fire in their small-plot land-clearing because some international research bodies like International Center for Research in Agroforestry has been campaigning for the non-burning land management known as “Quesungual Slash-and-Mulch Agroforestry System” or QSMAS.

The simple fact that companies could utilize fire-free forest-based fallow systems to replace fire such as chop-and-mulch of secondary vegetation (CM), stump removal and plowing (SP), or original secondary vegetation (OSV) (Reichert et al., 2014) stops this article from discussing technical or engineering solutions for forest fire in palm oil business. Satellite data also has estimated that 80 percent of the fires were set to clear lands by plantation companies or subcontractors against 20 percent by small-holder swidden farmers (Varkkey 2012, p. 315).


NASA Satelitte image of 2015 Southeast Asian Haze: Thick gray smoke hovers over both islands and has triggered air quality alerts and health warnings in Indonesia and neighboring countries.

Part One: Haze problem and causes

Biomass fires occur whenever there is enough heat applied to organic fuel with the presence of oxygen (the traditional "fire triangle" concept) (Countryman 1971, Pyne et al., 1996).  Smoke haze is caused by vegetation and peat-swamp fires to produce major concern for its negative impact on regional air quality and health. Smog and particulate air pollution over Southeast Asian large cities mostly come from peat-swamp fires from Indonesia (Hayasaka et al. 2014; Reddington et al. 2014[1], cited in Cattau, 2016, p. 3). The large emissions of smoke from central and southern Sumatra and Kalimantan[2] that cause air quality issues in Singapore are coincident with ongoing deforestation and expansion of oil palm plantation (Koh et al. 2011, Miettinen et al. 2011, Ramdani and Hino 2013). The rates of forest cover destruction by 1.45 million hectares per year during 2000-2010 (Stibig et al. 2014) were contributed largely with the appearance of oil palm plantations (Koh et al. 2011). The expansion of large-scale oil palm plantations, which have been associated with the use of fire for land clearing activities (Varkkey 2013), has been pointed out as the key driver of future fires. Furthermore, the report by Hayasaka et al. 2014 after research in Palangkaraya (Central Kalimantan) shows that peat fires are the major contributor of photochemical smog and air pollution in the region.

Generally, the major sources of biomass burning are deforestation (Van de Werf et al. 2008), slash-and-burn agriculture (Prasad et al. 2000, Langner et al 2007), agricultural residue burning (Cheewaphongphan and Garivait 2013), management fires (Murdiyarso and Lebel 2007), and peatland burning (Siegert et al. 2001). The lucrative returns of palm oil in Malaysia encouraged Indonesia to follow suit (Basiron 2007, p. 291) and open rapidly plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan in the 1980s (Indonesian Government 1998). Pursuing an ambitious policy goal to be the largest palm oil producer (Van Gelder 2004, p. 19), the Indonesian Government expanded the plantations through privatization of previously privatized of previously state-run estates through Transmigration Program and Plantation Revitalization Program (or locally known as PIR-Trans). As the result, over 90 percent of CO2 emissions from decomposition of deforested and drained peatlands and associated fires in Southeast Asia arise from Indonesia; in Central Kalimantan, peatland accounts for 91.5 percent (0.73 Mha) of 32 percent (0.79 Mha) of burned forest (Page et al., 2002, p. 61). In fact, the critical question arises on the palm oil plantation wild expansion because around 46 percent of fuel-rich peatland areas were designated to be palm oil concessions as of 2010 (WRI 2014).

Part Two: Attempts to deal with smoke haze

Both national and international bodies have tried in the past to reduce fire in Indonesia either through ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, and Indonesia’s own law (Act no 41 of 1999 on Bans for Corporations from Using Fire to Clear Land for Palm Oil Plantations).

First of all, the Principle 21 of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment[3] is the first line of defense in international laws against transboundary pollution. Paradoxically, ASEAN has been known as an entity that shoots many pro-environmental international agreements. From 1978 to 1981, for example, ASEAN turned out to be a pro-developing countries entity. During the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, for example, ASEAN countries rallied and lobbied against Austrian eco-labels on tropical timbers through Singapore Resolution on Environment and Development and Common Stand on UNCED, Singapore 18 February 1992 successfully (Tay 1998, p. 204). During GATT panel final decision 6 April 1998, ASEAN countries challenged the WTO’s discussion on US Laws on shrimp imports when production methods failed to safeguard against the killing of sea turtles (Tay 1998, p. 204). Expectedly, ASEAN's strategies on environmental concerns seek to integrate environmental and developmental concerns in decision-making processes and mechanisms would run against pro-environmental interests. Despite the complication and ramifications of these mechanisms, their effectiveness has been killed in the beginning through appalling weaknesses in monitoring, assisting, and ensuring state compliance; "ASEAN Way" and its preference for non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states: for non-binding plans (instead of treaties), and for centralized institutions with relatively little initiative and resources (Tay 1998).

These lame characters of the “ASEAN Way” find their ways in the agreements on the fires and haze (Tay 1998). As a response to the haze in 1994, ASEAN environmental ministers agreed to the Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution in June 1995 to set broad policies and strategies. Countries agreed to share knowledge and technology on the prevention and mitigation of forest fires and to establish cooperation mechanisms in combating forest fires; each country established the focal point and enhanced national capabilities. The failure of this Plan began in its implementation; only a few steps planned were actually done. The satellite images of fires and ‘hot spots' of Singapore given to Indonesia were one of these taken steps. Rather than regional, most arrangements and discussion ended up as bilateral such as Indonesia and Malaysia or Indonesia and Singapore (Tay 1998, p. 205). The international assistance that was given later in the 1997 outbreaks, mainly for fire-fighting, was piecemeal and uncoordinated (Tay 1998). In fact, a thesis written by Dolcemascolo (2004, p. 157) on fire management through community fire brigades in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia forest reveals a long list of causes failures: no consultation with communities, not enough presentation of specialists on fire management, inability to use the secured funds for actual fire management activities, different opinions between local teams and donor team (World Bank) about investment on technical assistance, over-domination of international donors on decisions, different criteria of loans, aids, and programs in spending, misrecognition of value of exploration of alternative solutions and strong partnership, narrow interpretation of problems and solutions, and refusal to recognize how joint problem exercises would be useful. (For more information on the failures of so many regional “Action Plans,” an article entitled “Regional Environmental Governance: An Evaluation of the ASEAN Legal Framework for Addressing Transboundary Haze Pollution” by Nurhidayah, Lipman, and Alam written in 2014 could be checked.)


A family riding a motorcycle through the thick air and smoke from peat fires. Outside Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan.

The laws set by Indonesia so far only produced three convictions after 2015 (Ng 2017, pp. 222-224). The 1997 Law No. 23/1997 on Environmental Management that threatens a maximum imprisonment of 10 years and/or a maximum fine of IDR 500 million (USD 37,000) only brought once conviction in which 176 companies were involved but only 5 were brought to court (Ng 2017, p. 230). A Malaysian named Goby (the president of PT. Adei Plantation and Industry) was sentenced by the Indonesian Supreme Court to eight months and fined IDR 100 million (USD 10,000) for ground fires in his plantation in 1999[4].

The tougher law appeared in 2009 as the Law No. 32/2009 on Environmental Protection and Management and was heralded as “a complete set of provisions that deal with almost all of the elements of modern environmental law” (Ng 2017). This tougher law, first, imposes a secondary liability on "a person ordering the crime or a person acting as an activity manager in the crime.” Then, second, it slaps the minimum imprisonment and fine also to any offenses related to air pollution. Third, the offenses that cause air pollution with intent to cause injury or death attract a maximum of 15 years of imprisonment and a maximum fine of IDR 15 billion (USD 1.1 million) or 30-fold of the punishment under the previous 1997 Law. Fourth, this law punishes also the offenses with “negligence” as the mens rea (no need for the state prosecutor to prove intention [to cause deaths or injuries]) (Ng 2017, p. 231). As of November 2015, the police investigated 238 cases of forest fires, named 205 individual suspects and 11 corporate cases, and detained 72 suspects (Salim 2015).

After 2015, three convictions appear against three corporations (PT. Jatim Jaya with two years of imprisonment and IDR 1 billion or USD75,000, PT. Kallista Alam with IDR 366 billion or USD 25.6 million, and Bumi Mekar Hijau) (Ng 2017, p. 232). In December 2015, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Administration suspended or revoked concessions of 23 Indonesian paper and palm oil companies (Ng 2017). The ultimate reasons for such little performance in the Indonesian legal system were shown by Jones (2014) and Varkkey (2012).  Jones (2014, p. 617) claims that the nature of palm oil industry in Indonesia (investment from Malaysia/Singapore and global P&G) demands two ways: regulate it for sustainability or wait until nothing [forest] is left. "A closer look into investments in the oil palm sector reveals deep connections with Malaysian investors which often have links via government-linked corporations and Singaporean firms that engage in both plantations as well as regional logistics to ship timber around the world" (Jones 2014, p. 618). Varkkey's paper (2012, pp. 325-326) concluded with three points related to the regionalization of palm oil business in Indonesia.

First, since Malaysian and Singaporean plantation companies have built familiarity and connections with patronage politics at home, they are smoothly slipping through the existing patronage networks in Indonesia (Tarigan, Director of SAWIT, interviewed by Varkkey 2010). The intense economic regionalization of the Southeast Asian oil palm business, thus, has been monopolized (two-thirds of total plantation areas) by Malaysian and Singaporean interests (WALHI et al., 2009). Second, for the smoothness through which Malaysian and Singaporean business have integrated themselves into the local business environment, there are no more clear differences between the ground practices of local companies and those of Malaysian and Singaporean capitals. All of these are notorious for skirting regulations on land licensing and open burning, claiming often that political connections could protect them (Dauvergne 1998, pp. 13-17).

The closest method that was almost successful to control palm oil companies’ behavior in using fires on peatlands forest was the initiative suggested by the association of palm oil business itself whose members were concerned about the notoriety of palm oil capitals as the main sources of smoke and haze in ASEAN. As the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification began in 2004, it became a financial incentive to promote desirable behavior among the palm oil industry to reduce the threats to biodiversity and public health through the use of fire.


A student goes to school wearing a mask to protect him from the smoke that blankets the city of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.

Part Three: Hidden solutions

Indonesia pledged to double the palm oil production from 2010 to 2020 (Maulia 2010). However, to respect emissions reduction target and keep air quality, agricultural practices must minimize fire occurrence in the land use types either through regulatory, incentive-based, and technological mechanisms; financial incentives are argued by Wilcove and Koh (2010) as able to promote good behavior in the palm oil industry to reduce the threats to biodiversity from land conversion, negative outcomes on oil palm concession and fire. One of such financial incentives is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that was established in 2004. RSPO itself is a non-profit industry-led trade organization that was designed to address the growing concern about the detrimental impacts on the environment around palm oil; RSPO is the largest multi-stakeholder organization focusing on sustainability within the palm oil business sector and as the only global sustainability standard in the edible oil sector (Cattau 2016, pp. 106-107).

According to the RSPO Principles and Criteria, RSPO allows no fire used for land-clearing for new plantation sites or for replanting on certified plantations except “where an assessment has demonstrated that it is the most effective and the least environmentally damaging option for minimizing the risk of severe pest and disease outbreaks, and exceptional levels of caution should be required for use of fire on peat” (RSPO 2013). Logically, the RSPO certification mechanism has a big potential to reduce fire on oil palm plantation whenever the companies respect the RSPO Principles and Criteria (Cattau 2016, p. 107). In fact, the study by Cattau (2016, p. 115), whose objective was to assess the reduction of fire occurrences on RSPO certified oil palm concessions[5] in Indonesia from 2012 to 2015 (with some sampled sites from Sumatra and Kalimantan where over 90 percent of palm oil plantations are located), found that “fire activity is significantly lower on RSPO certified concessions compared with non-certified concessions on non-peatlands in wet years.” This great potential of RSPO certification to reduce fire and haze, however, is canceled by the political refusal by Indonesia and Malaysia’s contingent who questioned the legality of RSPO certification system. RSPO members had been asked by General Assembly Resolution in November 2013 to submit their concession maps to RSPO (Cattau 2016, p. 116). The challenge by Indonesia and Malaysia, e.g., Directorate General of Plantation 2015), against the “legality” of this process in RSPO stopped the implementation of the resolution[6] and no more data were available since 2013.

Another study by Carlson et al. (2017, p. 121) found that although certified palm oil was associated with reduced deforestation (by 33 percent from a counterfactual of 9.8 to 6.6 per year), certification had no causal impact on forest loss in the peatlands or active fire detection rates. (By 2017, only around 20 percent of global palm oil production was certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.)[7] The reason for this failure is obvious when this study by Carlson et al. (2017, p. 121) found that most plantations contained little residual forest when they received certification through Letter of Intent (LOI) of the RSPO; by 2015 certified areas held less than 1 percent of forests remaining within Indonesian oil palm plantation. This fact might reveal the inconsistencies practiced in the granting of Letter of Intent between the RSPO and the companies.

These facts uncover the potential of the business-oriented solution to reduce or slow the rate of fire use in palm oil plantation (land clearing). Whenever this solution is achieved without prevarications, it is likely to deliver some effects to the use of fire and the produced haze. By implication, any other campaign that is connected with the reason of existence of the pyromaniac palm oil companies—which is business—might achieve certain degrees of success such as European or U.S. consumers’ boycott campaigns against anti-environmental palm oil products.


[1] Reddington et al.’s (2104) study measured the amount of particulate matter with diameters less than 2.5чm (or PM2.5) in Singapore over the period of 2004-2009: fires in southern Sumatra contributed 42-62 percent and fires from central Sumatra and Kalimantan contributed 21-35 percent and 14-15 percent, respectively.

[2] Indonesia cover 225,000 km2 of peatland (or about 83 percent of peatland in Southeast Asia) distributed as 57,000 km2 in Kalimantan and 30,100 km2 in Central Kalimantan (Hayasaka et al. 2014, p. 258).

[3] Interpreted by many environmentalists as representation of customary international law, Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration recognizes the sovereignty of states although demands their responsibility to uphold "that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction." After this Principle 21, many leading international lawyer bodies, such as Institut de droid international, have adopted resolutions or other statements to assert State obligations on transboundary pollution; it appeared as if Principle 21 acted as a "hard" law to reassure lawyers on the declarations of "soft" law and other principles that characterize such environmental arena. International bodies also criticized moves that may dilute the legal characteristics of Principle 21 such as Principle 2 of the Rio Declaration, which was alleged as "a skillfully masked step backward.” Principle 2 recognizes state responsibility and “sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies” (Tay 1998).

[4] This weak conviction is expected as the mens rea (or proof of “intention” to the crime) was highly set and thus difficult to prove convincingly by the state prosecutor. Corruption was also allegedly involved in such an easy conviction (Ng 2017).

[5] The map for locations of industrial-scale palm oil plantation is produced, although incomplete, by the Ministry of Forestry to cover the areas and their respective concession holders (although the status of ‘RSPO certified' or not is not available on this map). The data whether the plantation areas are RSPO certified or not is given by Greenpeace data (Rosoman and Rahmawa 2015). Therefore, the fire activities within "RSPO-certified" areas and "non RSPO-certified" areas could be compared and analyzed with some statistical methods. Actually, 28 RSPO certified concessions (180,333 ha, 4 on peatlands and 24 on non-peatlands) and 25 non RSPO-certified concessions (326,205 ha, 11 on peatlands and 14 on non-peatlands) were the samples of this research (Cattau et al., 2016).

[6] This stoppage created not only troubles for independent researchers to evaluate the effects of RSPO certification but also to the RSPO itself to monitor tightly its members. Whenever the RSPO monitored fire hotspots (through Global Forest Watch platform), the RSPO members in those hotspots must provide evidence of the situation and report back to the RSPO on the action to remedy the situation (RSPO 2015). Since the undisputed map of certified concessions is not available, the RSPO cannot hold any members accountable.

[7] Certified oil palm growers agree to comply with the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) standard, which does not require zero deforestation but only limits land covers that may be developed for oil palm. New plantings since November 2015 may not clear primary forest or high concentration value (HCV) areas (HCV Resource Network 2017). Certification demands riparian buffer protection, while non-certified plantations sometimes clear to the edge of water bodies (Carlson et al., 2017); the P&C mandate avoidance of steep slopes or poor soils and ban extensive planting (more than 100 ha) on peatlands that have been de facto available for development in Southeast Asia (Miettinen et al. 2016).


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