Air pollution knows no boundaries. For many years, cash crop-related burning in Indonesia and the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) have contributed significantly to Southeast Asia’s plummeting air quality. Millions of people regularly suffer serious health problems caused by the haze originating from thousands of kilometers away.
Last week, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held their 34th annual summit is Bangkok while the city and municipalities elsewhere in the region were suffering notably poor air quality. Nonetheless, the leadership took no collaborative action, preferring to maintain a posture of dismissal toward its 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) and its associated roadmap to make the region haze-free by 2020.
This legally-binding environmental agreement applies to all ten ASEAN member states, committing them to reducing haze pollution mainly through monitoring and prevention activities.
A major reason why the AATHP has failed is the continued absence of legal mechanisms across the region that compel governments to hold individuals and corporations accountable for contributing to this regional crisis. Indeed, the most important question is not ‘where’ is pollution occurring, but ‘who’ is profiting from this burning behavior.
According to Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry, fires in 2019 have already blackened 860,000 hectares, an area 12 times the size of Singapore—spreading pollutants across five other ASEAN states. This year is shaping up to be the worst since Indonesia’s record-breaking fires of 2015.
Research by Greenpeace Indonesia finds that Singaporean and Malaysian companies own some of the palm oil and pulp and paper plantations burned and cleared, and thus are contributing to the regional haze. These companies, however, have not been sanctioned.
It’s notable that the data used to identify these companies’ involvement came from a variety of public sources, though no such data has been made available to the public by the Indonesian government.
Countries within the GMS share a similar problem with their own sources of transboundary haze, however, the culprits are even harder to pin down.
Land in the GMS is increasingly being transformed for industrial-scale mono-cropping. Whether it be maize, sugar cane, cassava, palm oil or rice, this trend is now coming under the spotlight for causing deforestation and associated pre- and post-harvest burning that contributes to regional air pollution.
Industrial maize cultivation, much of which is used in animal feed and biofuels, is particularly problematic. And information about the agribusinesses utilizing this land is not being released. Without this information in the open, governments feel less inclined to hold companies accountable for the health and environmental impacts originating from where their fires take place.
An analysis by Greenpeace Thailand of 2019 data obtained from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, showed that more than 583,000 hectares (3,646,000 rai) of land in upper parts of Northern Thailand, and 1,204,000 hectares (7,525,000 rai) of land in Myanmar’s Shan State are maize plantations. Within the industrial-scale maize areas, there were a total of 6,879 fire hotspots identified in this part of Northern Thailand and 14,828 hotspots in Myanmar’s Shan State between December 2018 to May 2019.
This research further revealed that there is an alarming increase in the area of maize plantations in Myanmar’s Shan State, from 400,660 hectares in December 2018 to 1,206,933 hectares in May 2019. Here again, there is no publicly available information on companies utilizing this land, and thus who is responsible for the fires that are occurring.
In 2015, Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency reported observations of hotspots and burnt areas associated with maize and other commercial crops, as well as fires in forest areas and national forest reserve, within northern Thai provinces. However, neither this data, nor any such data since, has been made publicly available.
Agribusiness conglomerates are expanding their reach throughout the GMS, taking advantage of both growing demand for animal feed in Thailand and China, and emerging export markets in Myanmar and Laos. Agricultural investment policies are facilitating this trend, and without any corresponding uptick in environmental regulations.
While local farmers are typically put under contract with these companies to cultivate the fields, it’s the companies taking advantage of the weak regulatory environment that are ultimately responsible for the haze being generated.
ASEAN member states have already made clear on paper they are committed to eliminating transboundary haze. Available technology already provides the tools from which to map in real time the details about where burning is occurring and has occurred. All that is left is for ASEAN member states to track the responsible parties associated with each track of land, and to make all this data public. Such transparency would easily facilitate the swift enforcement of regulations to combat haze coming from agricultural burning.
The public has the right to know who is causing the fires that are generating the unhealthy air so many of us are being forced to breathe. Consumers must be allowed to minimize their own role in the problem by not patronizing those companies responsible, and to pressure their governments to penalize these polluters so that this burning can come to an end.
Business as usual is no longer an option. Without making these companies accountable, we’ll only become more blinded by their haze.