Friday, March 21, 2008

Puff the magic garden

The Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed in 2002. Yet not surprising, only Indonesia, where most of the fire occur, is the only country that has not ratified it.

According to Mr Alvin Lie, a legislator from the National Mandate Party, the benefits of ratifying the pact are smaller compared to the obligations. With ratification, Indonesia would be obligated to introduce legislation and measures to promote zero-burning policy.

Before Indonesia’s neighbours begin to criticise Indonesia for dragging it feet, we must understand Indonesia’s point of view. Banning or curbing clearing the forest by fire might prove to be an unpopular legislation.
The late Indonesian President Soeharto renewed a ban on this practice of slash-and-burn (S&B) as a means of land clearing in 1997. But this practice continued till today and prosecutions take time. Thus few small holding farmers have stuck to this ban.

Clearly the advantages of using S&B out weight the prospects of being charged in court.

S & B clear space while the ash acts as a fertilizer. In addition, burning allows the seedling to grow faster as the soil structure is improved and weeds are prevented from growing. Finally, this method reduced the possibility of diseases and pests as the burning acts as a form of sterilization.

Unless alternatives to S&B bring about similar benefits, Indonesia farmers will not be motivated to stop this practice.

For example, clearing the land and removing the wood only clear the space for the farmers without the additional benefits that S&B brings. Farmers would then have to spend money on fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides which would add to the cost of production. Thus, the possibility of farmers abandoning this method or considering an alternative method is slim.

Yet, S&B is known to deplete forests and biodiversity, contribute as much as 25 % to global warming. Each year in August, the farmers in Indonesia are expected to clear the land using this method.

What can Asean do to motivate the farmers to stop S&B to clear land?

One possibility is to bring direct foreign investment (DFI) in manufacturing into the agricultural areas while consolidating the small holding farms own by these farmers. Once the farmers earn more income by working in the factories, they would be willing to give up being farmers. Meanwhile their farms can be consolidated so that these farms can be operated in an extensive, large scale operation like the plantations in Malaysia.

Malaysia does not use the S&B method to clear the land and have been able to make plantation a profitable and viable economic alternative compared to small scale farming.

Perhaps Singapore should take the lead by bring more DFI into Indonesia. It could provide training for the farmers to equip them with the skills to work in the manufacturing sectors while other Asean members like Malaysia and Brunei can start to invest in Indonesia. Concerned developed countries like USA, Britain and the European Union can now play a direct role in helping to reduce the carbon footprint of Indonesia by following suit.

It has been demonstrated empirically that as a country develop, the portion of its population working in the primary agricultural sector will decrease.

If Asian can collectively offer this carrot, I am sure that Indonesia will find that the benefits of ratifying the pact are bigger compared to the obligations that signing this pact will bring.

Fighting the haze can no longer be seen as a national issue with Indonesia being the sole fire fighter. Neither can we focus on fighter fighting strategies like mobilising resources to fight the fires triggered by S&B practices.

Unless there is a significant wind of change, we can expect the fire in Indonesia to continue burning.