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10 Nov 2015

Compiled by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Clearing the Southeast Asia haze: experts reflect on possible steps by companies and governments

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We invited some of the region’s leaders in legal accountability and sustainability to respond to the following question:

What do you want to see companies and governments doing to respond to the haze crisis in Southeast Asia?


Mahdev Mohan, Assistant Professor of Law, Singapore Management University:

Regardless of the presumptions in Singapore’s trans-boundary haze pollution act (THPA) which appear to favour the affected private claimants, alleged corporate culprits have taken issue with the veracity of the charges levelled against them, and the extent to which haze pollution in Singapore can be attributed to entities they have no effective control over in Indonesia. Indonesian authorities have done little to mitigate the problem. On the back of ‘preventive measures notices' that have been issued by Singapore's National Environment Agency to several corporations in Indonesia, foreign investors disadvantaged by haze pollution should look elsewhere for an effective remedy. Investor-State arbitration is a viable avenue they could consider. (Related article available here: https://business-humanrights.org/en/experts-advance-idea-that-haze-pollution-in-southeast-asia-could-violate-intl-law-be-subject-of-an-investment-treaty-claim-against-indonesia) 


Sumi Dhanarajan, Trustee, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre:

The severe nature of this year’s haze points starkly to the challenges SE Asia faces in pursuing sustainable, equitable development. That this was the year when El Nino would lead to a prolonged dry season and therefore create the conditions for particularly rampant burning was well-known to governments and companies alike. And yet, here we are nearly three months later dealing with choking air pollution levels when preventative measures should have been in place from much earlier in the year. I would like to see companies being honest and transparent about their involvement in causing or enabling the burning to take place, whether by commission or by omission. On the part of governments, there needs to be an equally honest and accountable assessment of what has led to the failures of law enforcement that have brought us to this terrible point, and credible commitments to put a stop to these actions that threaten the health and the environment of my fellow Southeast Asians.


Johan Verburg, Senior Advisor Programme Development and Private Sector Engagement in Agribusiness, Oxfam [video]:

“There would be a need to develop the sector without deforestation, without mounting on peat which is now dry and burns, and also without the greedy business relations that is currently involved in a number of situations.”


Febionesta, Chairperson, SUAKA (Indonesia):

The main priorities that should be taken seriously by the government in collaboration with companies are: First, to take all necessary measures to save people from further suffering caused by the haze, including evacuation and medical treatment. Second, to undertake the best effort to stop the fire and haze as well as to recover the environment. Third, to hold individuals and companies accountable for their contribution to the haze, either through administrative, civil, or criminal responsibility. Fourth, to provide fair compensation and rehabilitation to victims. Fifth, to pass the necessary legislation or policy that would prevent similar haze problems from happening in the future.


Maureen Harris, Acting Mekong Legal Director, EarthRights International:

Governments must adopt laws and policies that recognise the environmental, human rights and transboundary dimensions of the crisis and ensure that the causes of the haze are addressed early and at their source. For example, rigorous requirements for transboundary environmental impact assessment, including procedures for public participation, would enable scrutiny of forest and land conversion and management policies and practices and their role in producing the haze. Companies have a legal and moral responsibility to conduct environmental and social due diligence to assess the impacts of their projects and investments and refrain from any activity that may intensify the crisis. Governments must ensure that companies contributing to the haze through poor practices and concern for profit over people and the environment are held accountable and those affected, wherever they are, have access to remediation. 


Cynthia Morel, Consultant on land, natural resources and sustainability:

“…both governments and companies need to transform the manner in which they engage with smallholders. They must be treated as active stakeholders rather than passive beneficiaries, as co-creators of products and services, and as parties who are deeply vested in a sustainable future.”

What's clear from the recent crisis is that an ounce of prevention is more effective than any cure. I believe that the launch of the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge or IPOP is demonstrative that the leaders within the industry understand the vital role that they can and must play towards zero-deforestation. While IPOP has been met with some resistance from Indonesia (and even Malaysia) at the political level, it is vital that the companies spearheading the IPOP consortium constructively engage with the respective governments to agree on a viable way forward. The Indonesian government has cited the alleged threat that IPOP poses to smallholders as one of the reasons for its reluctance to support it, but some smallholder unions have already come forward to say that they do not agree with this view, and that they would rather secure the necessary support to also produce sustainably than to continue with the status quo. This really emphasizes the point that both governments and companies need to transform the manner in which they engage with smallholders. They must be treated as active stakeholders rather than passive beneficiaries, as co-creators of products and services, and as parties who are deeply vested in a sustainable future.

That said, while the leading companies involved in palm oil are critical to a long term solution, it is also vital that we closely scrutinize the acts and omissions of mid-sized producers. To whatever extent that they are already involved in 'conflict palm oil', we cannot afford for that role to be expanded further by placing disproportionate focus on the big players alone. To this end, government policies incentivising more sustainable practices for mid-level producers should be devised and implemented. 

And finally, in order for any solution to be viable in the long-term, it is imperative that the Indonesian government swiftly completes its One Map initiative. Without the necessary clarity over land tenure, smallholders stand to gain from burning, and companies - even those with the best intentions - struggle to operate above board, due to the ensuing confusion. 


Komkrit Onsrithong, ASEAN Advocacy Officer, Oxfam [video]:

“Urgency needs to be revived.”


Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, Coordinator, Community Resource Center (Thailand):

“The topic of extra-territorial obligation within the region must be discussed to ensure remedies to protect human rights and natural resources."

This haze situation has become a normal occurrence in this region that happens every year. It is affecting the wider public, not only in the home country of plantations causing the haze, but also in neighboring countries. However, it appears that the response is slow and ineffective. It appears that concerned entities are only trying to extinguish the fire, but not attempting to remedy the situation of those affected by the haze.

Both the Indonesian government and the companies causing the fires that cause the haze are acting in ways that are less than socially responsible. Effective actions have been long delayed, to the detriment of affected people.

The government and the companies involved must take responsibility for healing the damage to affected people within the country and in neighboring countries. They are also responsible for the damage to natural resources and the environmental impacts, as well as the need to prevent problems like this from happening again.

Neighboring countries that are affected also have a role to play in order to protect their people. They should call on the Indonesian government and the companies involved to resolve and heal the damage by remedial action.

The topic of extra-territorial obligation within the region must be discussed to ensure remedies to protect human rights and natural resources.

Aside from remedial solutions, parties concerned must work to prevent the haze from recurring every year.