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date: 12 May 2021

The Politics of Fires and Haze in Southeast Asiafree

  • Helena VarkkeyHelena VarkkeyDepartment of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya


Transboundary haze pollution affects about half of the countries in Southeast Asia with varied intensities on an almost annual basis. Haze not only affects visibility, but also causes widespread health problems, transportation disruptions, and other socioeconomic issues. This haze, and the fires that cause it, has been a key topic for environmental politics research in the region since the late 1990s. This has largely been driven by one overarching objective: how to prevent haze from returning in the following years. However, conditions on the ground (mostly in Indonesia and in the larger Southeast Asian region) have been changing and evolving drastically. This has resulted in a very dynamic research agenda that has to keep up with these changes.

Within the context of environmental politics, fires and haze can be viewed through the broad lens of national interest. There is a strong link between the severity of haze and the burgeoning agribusiness sector in the region: that of oil palm in particular. Oil palm is a very important crop in the region, with Indonesia and Malaysia making up almost 90% of total global palm oil output. Hence, national and business interest theories have often been used as a framework for research in this area, with commercial oil palm plantations often being the unit of analysis. This includes research by this author, using the patronage politics framework. However, this has been called to question lately as these plantations face increasing market pressure to act more sustainably. A new group of actors that have since been highlighted are smallholders, either independent or in contract with larger plantations. There is potentially much to be uncovered with regard to the relationships between smallholders and commercial plantations, and how this affects patterns of fire use and global sustainability issues.

Related to this is the ever-evolving collection of local, regional, and national policies (and related enforcement issues) over land and fire use in Indonesia. One key area of contention is the use of peatlands. Fires on peat produce the thick, sooty smoke that travels across national boundaries, and are notoriously hard to put out. Political research in this area is heavily framed by a tough debate between the scientific community and socioeconomic concerns. While peatlands play an important role in the global climate change balance, at the same time, these peat areas face immense pressure for development fueled by the scarcity of land.

The regional context has also been an important theme for haze research. Haze primarily affects the Southern Southeast Asian subregion. And the major players of the palm oil sector also come from this region. The Indonesian palm oil sector is a vibrant combination of Malaysian, Singaporean, and local companies. And ASEAN has been the hub of cooperation and mitigation activities over haze. Hence, many scholars have searched for answers at the regional level. However, new national developments like Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act suggest that countries may be losing confidence with regional efforts, which may be an indicator for future directions for solutions as well.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat defines haze as “sufficient smoke, dust, moisture, and vapour suspended in air to impair visibility.” Haze pollution is transboundary when “its density and extent is so great at the source that it remains at measurable levels after crossing into another country’s airspace” (ASEAN Secretariat, 2008; Rianawati, 2015). One of the earliest records of this transboundary haze in the Southeast Asian region was back in 1982, and since then this phenomenon has developed into an almost annual occurrence in the region (Suwarsono et al., 2007). The intensity of the haze varies from year to year, but at its worst, it can affect the health of some 75 million people and the economies of six Southeast Asian nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, and the Philippines (Mayer, 2006).

The most recent serious episode of haze was in June and July 2013, which affected parts of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Southern Thailand. Much of the transboundary haze this year was traced to large-scale fires in parts of Borneo and Sumatra. Locally, the residents of Riau in the island of Sumatra closest to the fires suffered the brunt of the haze, suffering low visibility and health problems, alongside widespread damages to their crops due to out-of-control fires (Harahap, 2013). The Singapore Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) recorded the worst levels of air pollution ever experienced by the island, reaching the previously unheard of 400 mark on July 21, indicating critical levels “potentially life threatening to ill and elderly people” (Shadbolt, 2013). The haze that reached Malaysia also triggered the government to declare a state of emergency in two southern districts, causing hundreds of schools to be closed for several days (“PM declares haze emergency,” 2013).

This transboundary haze, and the fires that cause it, has been a key topic for environmental politics research in the region since the late 1990s. This has largely been driven by one overarching objective: how to prevent haze from returning in the following years. However, conditions on the ground (mostly in Indonesia and in the larger Southeast Asian region) have been changing and evolving drastically. This has resulted in a very dynamic research agenda that has to keep up with these changes.

There are generally four main directions of research on haze that can be described as priority areas toward improved understanding and mitigation of this transboundary problem. The first is in terms of the effects of the haze itself. While the haze occurs somewhat regularly, it is essentially ephemeral, posing a challenge for conclusive research on both its short- and long-term effects. This lack of basic understanding continues to affect public perception and urgency toward haze. Second is the link between the haze and the agribusiness sector, especially palm oil. The increased intensity of the fires and haze in the late 1990s was causally linked to the burgeoning palm oil sector in Indonesia and its related demand for land (Caroko, Komarudin, Obidzinski, & Gunarso, 2011); however, recent consumer pressures toward corporate sustainability and responsibility require a reexamination of industry practices. In this context, smallholders, and their relationship with larger plantation companies, have been an additional subject area warranting new research.

Third, and also related to agribusiness, is land use: peatland use in particular. The continuing demand for land for agribusiness has encouraged the opening up of (normally protected) peatlands. While many scholars (including the author) have drawn the link between peatland fires and especially intense haze (Kaat, 2010; Schreier-Uijl et al., 2013; Varkkey, 2016), engagement with scientific understandings of peatland ecosystems can identify new directions for analysis on the politics of land management on peat. These developing areas on haze-related research have also posed a continuing challenge to the fourth area of research, concerning mitigation strategies. Haze has been formally dealt with as a regional issue at the ASEAN level since the 1990s (Tay, 2008). However, the decades-long inability of ASEAN-level initiatives to resolve the transboundary problem, and new unilateral initiatives in response to this, continue to inspire research in this area. This article will discuss all four of these research areas in turn, focusing on the evolution of past research in each area; theories or concepts that are especially important in informing such research; and remaining puzzles that continue to drive research in this direction.

Effects, Perception, and Urgency

Haze not only affects visibility, but also causes widespread health problems, transportation disruptions, and other socioeconomic issues. However, in the early days of the haze, finding out the true health and economic effects of this form of air pollution was not seen as a priority by regional governments. Instead, the priority was to avoid widespread panic among the population, and also to avoid divestments in the economy and effects on the tourism industry. Hence, governments responded to the haze by being cautiously optimistic, bordering on denial.

For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Malaysian Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment frequently reassured the public that the haze particles were nontoxic and not active, and therefore not hazardous to health (Nayar, Chua, Azmin, & Hamid, 1990). Various Singaporean government agencies echoed this, declaring that it was not dangerous to be outdoors (Nathan, 1991), and that eye irritation and a slight odor in the air was nothing to be concerned about (“Big haze,” 1982). Economic losses were underplayed as well, with Malaysian economic analysts declaring that the 10-day emergency that was declared in Sarawak during the 1997–1998 haze would not have any immediate effect on the economy (Ngiam & Tawie, 1997). The Malaysian Ministry of Culture and Tourism also insisted that the haze should not affect tourist arrivals to the country (Kang, 1997), and blamed subsequent drops in arrivals on skewed coverage of the situation by foreign media outlets (“Drop in tourism earnings,” 1997). In fact, Malaysia even managed to force an apology and compensation out of CNN for what they regarded as “less-than-fair” reporting on the haze (“CNN to make amends,” 1997).

However as the years passed, governments were forced to acknowledge the increase of haze-related diseases (Foong, 1994) and its effects on the economy. But the lack of accurate knowledge among governments on such effects became increasingly obvious. For example, the Malaysian government was forced to admit publicly that they had no details on the amount of economic losses as a result of the haze from 2000 onward (Parliament of Malaysia, 2010). While there has since been some research, both private and government funded into this area (Applegate et al., 2002; Hon, 1999; Jones, 2006; Mohd Shahwahid & Othman, 1999; Othman, 2003; Ruitenbeek, 1999; R. F. Severino, 1999), the actual extent to which the haze affects health and disrupts economies are still not yet well understood. The main reason for this is the ephemeral and episodic quality of this pollution phenomenon. The relatively short, but repeated, periods of haze make it challenging for medical scientists and economists to put accurate figures on the effects of haze.

Health effects as a result to exposure to haze can range from minor to severe. The fine particles in haze can cause minor irritation to the nose, throat, airways, skin, and eyes. Persons with existing medical problems like asthma, chronic lung disease, chronic sinusitis, and allergies; and children and the elderly, usually suffer more severely from exposure to haze (Ministry of Health, 1997). However it is difficult to conclusively determine if mortality and morbidity during or following a haze period is directly caused by haze, particularly, if they would have fallen sick (or died) anyway, with or without haze. A study in Canada in 2007 (Sahsuvaroglu & Jerrett, 2007), designed to demonstrate to policymakers how health effects that are seemingly as a result of air pollution are actually sensitive to a wide range of possible uncertainties, pointed out other factors that also have to be taken into account, including baseline pollution that may already trigger health conditions before the onset of haze episodes; and chronic diseases, the development of which may have been sped up due to exposure to spikes in air pollution. It is also hard to determine the harvesting effect of such air pollution: to what extent such exposure results in earlier death, as discussed in a study by Schwartz (2000).

It is telling that two studies on the health effects of haze conducted over roughly the same period had very different findings. A study by Sastry (2002) using Malaysian mortality statistics found that a high haze day increased the total all-cause mortality by about 20% in Malaysia, with the effects most present in the elderly. However, Emmanuel (2000), who examined hospital admissions in Singapore concluded that there was no significant increase in mortality that can be attributed to haze. The discrepancy between these findings could be due to the difficulty of identifying the harvesting effects of haze, which is acknowledged by Sastry (2002).

Severe haze episodes can wreak havoc on the economies of the countries affected. Increased haze-related health conditions can affect many human-intensive sectors due to lost workdays. Furthermore, the low visibility brought about by the haze can affect transportation services (especially aviation, with airport closures, and even an air crash) (Djuweng & Petebang, 1997) and tourism revenue throughout the region (R. C. Severino, 1999). The World Bank estimated that the 2015 haze cost Indonesia $16 billion. This estimate was made based on the impact on agriculture, forestry, trade, tourism, and transportation, as well as short-term effects of the haze such as school closures and on health (World Bank Group, 2016). However, like many estimates of previous haze episodes, the gray area of long-term effects is especially hard to quantify. An important question remains on how low visibility and haze-related health concerns will affect Southeast Asia’s long-term attractiveness as a tourism destination and expatriate hub, both areas that are vital to the region’s economic growth.

The possession of more factual information of haze has been demonstrated to be directly related to high and sustained levels of concern among the public, as found by a recent study done by De Pretto et al. (2015). This trend has been well-established psychology, as explained in the Theory of Planned Behaviour, which links beliefs to behavior. Hence, the fact that the public (and by extension the government) have had to make decisions on the haze based on incomplete and inconclusive information on how the haze effects public health and the economy can explain the relative lack of urgency surrounding the topic within the region. It can be observed that the public generally only cares about the haze during a haze episode, bringing to mid the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind” (SIIA, 2010; Tay, 2016). For example, research done on the 2013 haze episode reveals that the public experienced only mild psychological stress over the haze, not amounting to acute stress reaction syndrome (Ho et al., 2014).

A well-known media approach, the “CNN Effect” states that public opinion, communicated through media outlets, could influence government responsiveness over an issue (Robinson, 1999), and this may be true even in countries in the region where there is significant government control over the media (Forsyth, 2014). Hence, there is a need for increased and sustained public concern over the haze. De Pretto’s study finds that well-understood threats to personal health in particular are among the strongest factors affecting public levels of concern (De Pretto et al., 2015). Therefore, more accurate and well-communicated research, especially on the effects of haze on health, and to a lesser extent the economy, is important in ensuring high and sustained levels of concern and urgency over the haze, both among the public and by extension among governments in the region. This will no doubt play an important role in encouraging more research and also policymaking and implementation in this area.

Plantations and Smallholders: A Complicated Relationship

Forest fires have been extensively recorded in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, since the 19th century (Eaton & Radojevic, 2001). The “Great Fire of Borneo” in 1982, affecting 3.6 million hectares of forestland was partially attributed to natural causes, and partially to fires started by small-scale shifting cultivators who use fire as a tool to clear their land in preparation for planting (Dennis, 1999). Scholars doing research on the political economy of the fires during this time concluded that developmental issues among these smallholders like poverty (leaving them no choice but to burn), rapid population growth, and ignorance (that the fires caused widespread regional haze) were a major driver for the use of fires, and the resulting haze (Colfer, 2002; Quah & Johnston, 2001; Varma, 2003).

However, the haze events of 1997–1998 massively surpassed the scale of the 1982 fires, resulting in the worst haze the region has seen in 50 years (“Haze from forest fires,” 1998). These fires burned an estimated 10 million hectares around Indonesia, destroying forests and bushland, including conservation areas and national parks (Dauvergne, 1998). The 1997 and 1998 fires coincided closely with the palm oil boom experienced in Indonesia in the late 1990s. With its neighbor Malaysia reaping massive returns from palm oil in the face of stronger CPO (Crude Palm Oil) prices, the government of Indonesia began to encourage the establishment of palm oil plantations in its outer islands (McCarthy & Zen, 2010). With local plantation investors getting the first pick of land, the Indonesian government later also opened up their lands to foreign investors (McCarthy & Cramb, 2009). This open call was picked up primarily by Malaysian and Singaporean plantation companies and investors (Rajenthran, 2002).

Figures from various sources that indicate most of the fires during the 1997–1998 years (65–80% by the World Wildlife Fund for nature and 35% by the World Bank) (Jones, 2006; Saharjo, 1999) and also following years were on plantation concessions (Marlier et al., 2015; Spracklen, Reddington, & Gaveau, 2015), directed research at the time toward the activities of palm oil plantations. Scholars found that many plantation companies were systematically setting fire to their concession areas, scaling up local age-old burning techniques to quickly and cheaply clear their land in preparation for planting (Casson, 2002; Dauvergne, 1998; Gellert, 1998). Clearing land using machinery can cost up to $200 per hectare (Dauvergne, 1998), so this was concluded as a largely economic decision.

The development paradigm, related to national interest, was often used by scholars to explain why the Indonesian government allowed such commercial practices to proceed unregulated. Scholars like Koh and Wilcove (2007) pointed out that natural resource exploitation strategies, practiced here by Indonesia and many other Southeast Asian countries, often lead to an unbalanced development strategy that sacrifices the environment for the sake of economic gains at all costs. Hence, states like Indonesia often relegate the environment low on their lists of priorities. Fires and haze was seemingly a small price to pay for the developmental potential that the palm oil sector promised, not only in terms of GDP (CPO consistently contributes about 5% to Indonesia’s GDP) (Das, 2014), but also in terms of employment and poverty alleviation in the Indonesian hinterlands. Environmental degradation and its related pollution are thus viewed as unavoidable short-term costs of “development” and “externalities” of growth that could be dealt with later (Gellert, 2005). As one scholar puts it, “the root causes of environmental degradation are in social structures reinforced by the development paradigm. The paradigm is the villain” (Mittelman, 1998). Further research revealed that, in view of the limited funds available to the Indonesian government especially following the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the production of this development “miracle” was largely dependent on elite entrepreneurs (Chang & Rajan, 2001). This provided the justification for the development of patronage networks that supported the environmentally damaging operations of these business elites in the name of development (Sumiani, Haslinda, & Lehman, 2007). The close patron-client relationships that developed as a result of this enabled well-connected plantation companies to get away with illegally clearing land using fire. Laws and regulations related to commercial burning were made to be purposefully weak and weakly enforced, as government patrons attempted to protect their clients in the face of any threat to their continued operations (Varkkey, 2016). Research by this author (Varkkey, 2016) and others (Cotton, 1999; Hadiz & Robison, 2005; Jones, 2014) shone light on this practices, which prompted much discussion in the media and among civil society in this area.

The added media and civil society attention is demonstrated by the findings of Forsyth’s 2014 research, which shows how media coverage, and public concerns over haze shifted over time. What began as mainly concern on the health and economic effects of the haze shifted to frustration over Indonesia’s delayed ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (ATHP), and then to overwhelming criticism of Malaysian and Singaporean companies investing in the Indonesian oil palm sector (Forsyth, 2014). Such “bad press” resulted in several high-profile consumer boycotts that ultimately resulted in the cancellation of contracts of several major palm oil producers in the region, due to unsustainable farming practices like open burning (Roberts, 2011; Subejo, 2010).

Plantation companies in Indonesia are currently under massive pressure to act more sustainably, and above all prove that they are doing so. This has driven the popularity of transnational private governance and certification schemes like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), and Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). This largely mirrors the global trend of private governance in many agro-commodity sectors. Government-sponsored certification schemes like the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) have also recently emerged, which benchmark against national regulations and aim to offer certification to companies that are unable to meet private governance standards (Gnych, Limberg, & Paoli, 2015; Yaap & Paoli, 2014). While none of these governance and certification schemes address haze per se, many of these schemes address issues indirectly related to haze like peatland use and fire management. For example, RSPO standards include avoiding the use of fire for preparing land and replanting in their Principles and Criteria (RSPO, 2013). As a result, Indonesia is currently the world’s largest producer of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil, at 48% (RSPO, 2014).

Some plantation companies have also gone beyond such certification schemes to implement their own “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” commitments. These usually higher-profile companies, responding to public pressure, have voluntarily set their own higher standards for environmentally and socially responsible practices throughout their supply chains (Gnych et al., 2015). However, despite the drastic shift to sustainability and certification among large commercial palm oil plantation companies in Indonesia in the recent years, the haze still remains a constant presence in Southeast Asia, with the recent episode in 2013 even surpassing the 1997–1998 episode that was linked to the heyday of land clearing for palm oil. Hence, therein lies the puzzle that many researchers in this area are currently contending with. If palm oil plantations, which were identified as the major source of fires and haze, are now “behaving themselves,” how then does one explain the persistent, and in fact worsening, haze in the region?

Several avenues for research are offered up from this line of reasoning. The first direction lies in verifying the claims of sustainability by the palm oil industry, and also the effectiveness of the various types of certification schemes as mentioned above. While some research has been published in the first respect (Basiron, 2007; Basiron & Chan, 2004), such work has largely come from within the industry, and would do well to be verified by independent researchers. With respect to certification schemes, one of the challenges that have been identified is the difficulty of translating boardroom philosophy into action at plantation level (Paoli, Yaap, Wells, & Sileuw, 2010). Similar questions also can be asked with regards to the “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” movement, especially since these voluntary standards are exactly that—voluntary. Such research would engage with realities on the ground where the distance between company headquarters and individual plantations mean that headquarters often are not aware and do not have much control over activities on-site. Research is needed on how to reduce this tyranny of distance. Comparative studies are also needed on whether private certification schemes (like RSPO and ISCC), government-sponsored schemes (like the ISPO and MSPO) or self-imposed voluntary standards (“No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” movement) obtain more traction on the ground. Additionally, only 17% of global palm oil is certified sustainable by RSPO (RSPO, 2016). What does this relatively small number mean for the effectiveness of certification schemes?

These apparent (and well-publicized) improvements in commercial palm oil operations have come hand in hand with the revisiting of the role of shifting cultivators and smallholders in starting fires. There is potentially much to be uncovered with regard to the relationships between these community actors and commercial plantations, and how this affects patterns of fire use and sustainability issues. This then offers up the second direction for research in this area. Some smallholders exist in mutual symbiosis with plantation companies, either as the plasma in “nucleus and plasma” schemes where plantations are required to allow and support smallholders on a certain percentage of their concessions; or through buyer schemes where plantations pledge to buy palm oil bunches from independent smallholder plantations adjacent to their concessions (Vermeulen & Goad, 2006). Other communities exist in conflict with plantations, with issues related to Native Customary Rights (NCR).

In the cases of symbiosis, plantations often point to their plasma community or adjacent community plantations as starting fires that are then detected on satellite as being within concessions (and thus the responsibility of concessionaires), or to adjacent communities that light fires that then accidentally spread onto concessions. In the cases of conflict, communities sometimes use fire as a means of anger or revenge when they claim that their NCR lands have been “grabbed” by plantation companies (Potter, 2015; Tan, 2015), with the support of the government. Plantations have also been accused of purposely lighting fires so that NCR land can be reclassified as degraded land so as to facilitate legal conversion into plantations (Casson, 2002).

All these claims, by both commercial plantations and community actors, cannot be verified without immersive fieldwork with actors on the ground close to the fires. The Resilience Development Initiative in Bandung, Indonesia, has pioneered research of fire use and management among smallholders (Rianawati, 2015; Sagala, Sitinjak, & Yamin, 2013) but such research does not directly address the plantation-smallholder nexus. Following from this, exploring the role of the government as the gatekeeper for the legality of NCR lands become a potentially important follow-up research once plantation-smallholder conflict over such lands becomes better understood. While research on the plantation-smallholder relationship is challenging due to prevailing trust issues between both actors and also between these actors and researchers, research in this direction will help bring clarity to patterns of responsibility with regard to haze, which will be useful in not only assigning blame, but also in shaping targeted strategies for fire and haze mitigation. Finally, private certification schemes (including RSPO) have recently been encouraging smallholders to move toward certification as well. While there have been some initial studies on this (van Opijnen, Brinkmann, & Meekers, 2013), more research is needed to verify if, and to what extent, smallholder productivity and welfare improves following certification and/or adoption of certified cultivation methods.

Whither the Peatlands?

Another related area of research related to palm oil plantations is the use of peatlands. Researchers have found that up to 80% of the Southeast Asian haze originates from peat fires (Applegate et al., 2002). Peat fires produce smoke that is especially thick and sooty, which can travel far distances, even across national boundaries (Tan, Lee, Mohamed, & Bhatia, 2009). Peatlands are formally protected in Indonesia under a plethora of laws and regulations, and generally should not be licensed out for development of any sort (Wibisino et al., 2011). They are important water catchment and control systems, helping to moderate floods during the wet season and to provide water during dry periods (Samsul et al., 2007). Peatlands also play an important role in climate change mitigation. The waterlogged nature of peatlands suspends decomposition of organic material and hence acts as a carbon sink (Parish & Looi, 2011).

This characteristic, however, means that as soon as peatlands are drained for agricultural development, the organic material is exposed to air, decomposes quickly, and dries out. This makes peatlands extremely fire prone when disturbed; and once ignited, the flame spreads vast distances underground along the carbon-rich soil, making it extremely difficult to put out (Tan et al., 2009). Despite this general unsuitability for agricultural development, the increasing demand for land driven by the palm oil boom has resulted in vast areas of peatlands being (illegally) licensed out for conversion anyway (Wicke, Sikkema, Dornburg, & Faaij, 2011). In line with the developmental priorities of the governments, intact (peat)forests were regarded as “idle wasteland” if not exploited to its full potential (McCarthy & Cramb, 2009). Hence, corporate elites often make use of their connections with government patrons to acquire these otherwise off-limits lands (Varkkey, 2016). Because of this, figures by Silvius and Kaat (2010) show that around 25% of all oil palm plantations in Indonesia are on peat. The twice-renewed Moratorium on New Forest Concessions provides significant additional protection to Indonesia’s peatlands; however the moratorium is not retroactive, and does not protect areas that have already been given out, but not yet cleared (Austin et al., 2014).

Much of the hotspots in Indonesia are still being detected on peat areas (Kirana, Sitanggang, & Syaufina, 2015; Yulyanti, Hayasaka, & Usup, 2012). However, it is still inconclusive as to what extent plantation activity is related to fires on peat, and by extension, the haze. While plantation companies now may be generally more careful with regards to fires on their concessions, especially those on peat, engagement with scientific understandings of the peat ecosystem show that this may not be adequate to avoid fires on peat.

Peat scientists have found that the peat dome, which forms a single hydrological unit, is highly sensitive to disturbances in any part of the dome (Hooijer et al., 2010). This means that drainage in one part of the dome can also dry out peat in other areas (Parish et al., 2008). Therefore, sometimes fires in one part of a peat dome may be a result of commercial disturbances and drainage in another part, up to kilometers away. Even if a plantation practices good water management on their concession, it is still likely that their activities are causing fires in other parts of the dome.

Community activity is often also implicated in fires on peatlands. Generally, communities do not settle on peatlands, and do not engage in regular agriculture on peat due to the high costs involved in the draining of the peatlands. Communities living in forests adjacent to peat areas normally only enter peatlands for hunting, gathering, fishing, and some small-scale aquaculture activities (Ramakrishna, 2003). But in recent years, plantation development on peatlands has been found to be a driver for more community presence on peatlands, as such development generally improves access to peatlands and also brings in people for employment (Chokkalingam et al., 2007). It has often been proposed that a stray cigarette butt, thrown carelessly by a villager, for instance, while fishing (Takahashi, Jaya, & Limin, 2016), can provide the spark needed for a massive peat fire. However, an understanding of the peat dome as a single hydrological unit limits this line of argumentation, since the possibility for large fires being a result of cigarettes or the like would only be likely if the peat dome landscape is already damaged in the first place.

Hence, it is important to assess how plantations engage with scientific understandings of peat hydrology. The usually secluded nature of peatlands, far away from towns and cities, and their waterlogged nature, have discouraged on-the-ground research in these respects. However, it would be valuable to find out to what extent plantations are aware, and acknowledge, how their activities have indirect effects to fires beyond their concessions, for example, in drying out the larger peat dome, and as a driver for more community presence on peatlands. Is the present level of awareness enough to discourage development on peatlands completely, or do economic considerations still outweigh such concerns?

Such findings will be useful in informing the ongoing scientific and political debate on whether peatlands should be used for commercial agricultural development at all (Evers, Yule, Padfield, O’Reilly, & Varkkey, 2016; Kaat, 2010; Schreier-Uijl et al., 2013). This debate speaks to the larger neocolonialism debate, of whether developed countries have the right to demand developing countries to preserve their natural resources, at the expense of development (Mohamed, 1992). As it happens, many of the peat scientists who argue that tropical peat is unsuitable for agricultural development happen to be of Western origin. For example, Western scientists have produced findings that show high levels of carbon emissions from disturbed peatlands (Hooijer et al., 2010; Page, Rieley, Hoscilo, Spessa, & Weber, 2013; Page et al., 2002). While these mainstream views highlight the importance of pristine peatlands in the global climate change balance, local proponents of peatland development have used neocolonial arguments to oppose these “Western” views on developmental grounds.

Several notable Malaysian governmental bodies and their affiliated researchers often describe these mainstream views as neocolonial efforts to limit the progress and modernization of lesser-developed nations in favor of environmental conservation (something that the West ignored during their developmental years). They argue that Western voices do not “understand” the uniqueness of tropical peat and accuse these “environmentalists” of purposely overlooking the fact that these lands are valuable new frontiers for agricultural development. These local researchers instead insist that peatlands can, and should, be developed sustainability for agriculture, especially palm oil (Melling, Chua, & Lim, n.d.), and that those from outside the region cannot demand otherwise (Nurbianto, 2016). For example, a group of local Malaysian peat researchers have produced findings that show lower emissions on oil palm plantations situated on peat (Melling, Hatano, & Goh, 2005). Such contradictory findings mean that the jury is still out, so more research on the social science aspects of peatland usage will be helpful in providing new and potentially helpful perspectives to bring this debate to a satisfactory conclusion.

Local Problem, Regional Solutions?

With up to six Southeast Asian countries being affected by the haze in varying degrees, it seemed only natural that ASEAN played some role in the regional haze crisis. Indeed, the regional organization first began to acknowledge haze as a regional concern in 1985, with the adoption of the Agreement on Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. This agreement specifically referred to air pollution and its “transfrontier environmental effects.” The first ASEAN-level activity that specifically addressed haze however was in 1992, with the Workshop on Transboundary Pollution and Haze in ASEAN Countries (ASEAN Secretariat, 1995). This was followed by several other initiatives like the Co-operation Plan and Haze Technical Task Force (1995), the Regional Haze Action Plan (1997), the Hanoi Plan of Action (1998), and the ASEAN Peatland Management Initiative (2002).

These initiatives became very high profile, and haze initiatives were lauded as the earliest example of ASEAN cooperation over transboundary issues (Elliott, 2003). However, the fact that the haze continued to persist despite the accumulating ASEAN-level initiatives inspired scholarly research into why this was so. Scholars were particularly divided over whether the application of the ASEAN Way in these initiatives was helping or hindering effective haze mitigation. The ASEAN Way is a set of behavioral and procedural norms that prescribe approaches for regional interactions, and include the search for consensus, the principles of sensitivity and politeness, nonconfrontational approaches to negotiations, behind-the-scenes discussions, an emphasis on informal and nonlegalistic procedures, and noninterference and flexibility initiatives (Kivimaki, 2001).

Some more forgiving scholars were of the impression that the ASEAN Way was a positive approach given the circumstances, especially as Indonesia might not have agreed to cooperate otherwise) (Cotton, 1999; Florano, 2004) and would eventually lead to successful haze mitigation; however others were more critical. Other critical scholars argued that the lack of explicit operational directives, and the inability of any member country to ensure that the other member countries fulfilled their obligations, rendered these initiatives largely ineffective (Jones, 2006; Tay, 2008).

Partially from this scholarly criticism and partially from increased public outcry (see Forsyth, 2014) over the persistent haze, member states agreed to establish a legally binding mechanism to address the haze, in the form of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. This agreement is notable for being one for the few legally binding ASEAN agreements to be entered into force (ASEAN Secretariat, 2004). Several international principles and customary international law was adopted into the ATHP’s legal framework, including the obligation to not cause environmental harm, the precautionary principle, the duty to cooperate, the principle of good neighborliness, sustainable development, notification and information, public participation, and prevention (Nurhidayah, 2012).

The fact that the ATHP is legally binding was viewed by some scholars to be a positive step forward in terms of effective regional cooperation (Jones, 2006; Koh & Robinson, 2002; Smith, 2000). However, continued haze after the ATHP was brought into force in 2003 called for more careful analysis of the document. Scholarly research revealed that, even though the agreement was legally binding, the ASEAN Way prevailed during the negotiation process of the ATHP. Principles of sensitivity, nonconfrontation, and noninterference were held sacrosanct, which resulted in a watered-down document that was vague and lacking in various hard-law instruments such as strong dispute resolution and enforcement mechanisms (Nguitragool, 2011).

This author (Varkkey, 2016) and others (Nesadurai, 2008; Syarif, 2007) have argued that member states chose to strictly adhere to the ASEAN Way norms when finalizing the ATHP as a way to ensure that the crucial economic interests of the involved states were preserved (Jones, 2014; Syarif, 2007). In this case, it was palm oil. At the time, Indonesia and Malaysia combined made up almost 90% of total global palm oil output (and still do) (World Growth, 2011). Singapore is also an important investor of both land and refineries for palm oil in both Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, instead of offering solutions to the transboundary haze problem, the ATHP has served to continue to protect the interests of the palm oil plantation sector and the well-connected patrons and clients that control it (Nesadurai, 2008; Varkkey, 2016).

A further spanner was thrown in the ASEAN works as Indonesia continued to defer ratification of the ATHP for more than a decade. This further strengthened the arguments of scholars who proposed that member states were taking advantage of the ASEAN Way to serve their own national interests, instead of regional ones. Despite the weaknesses of the ATHP in providing legally binding enforcement mechanisms, Indonesia, as the key exporter of haze to the region, still felt that the ATHP had the potential to threaten Indonesia’s sovereign right to use its land and resources as it saw fit (Elliott, 2003; Varkkey, 2016). The decision-makers at the ministerial and parliamentary levels in Indonesia were particularly against it, and this author drew the conclusion that these government elites have an additional personal interest in ensuring that the well-being of their corporate clients were preserved through the non-ratification of the ATHP (Varkkey, 2016). Indonesia’s non-ratification further limited the effectiveness of the ATHP, and further protracted the haze problem in the region.

The ATHP received a fresh boost of optimism when outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono managed to push the ATHP through for ratification as one of his last tasks in office, before handing over the reins to current President Joko Widodo (Soeriaatmadja, 2014). This turn of events has provided a jolt of life back into the almost overdone literature of regional haze governance in Southeast Asia, especially since several scholars have argued that this final ratification was exactly what the region needed to finally be able to effectively mitigate haze (Ariadno, 2013; Gunawan, 2014; Jerger, 2014). New research is thus called for not only on why Indonesia finally managed to ratify the agreement (which may link back to Forsyth’s 2014 findings of Indonesia’s non-ratification as one of the major points of public concern and discussion), but more pertinently on if and how Indonesia’s belated ratification would increase the effectiveness of the ATHP. While early movers in this area have been pessimistic that this final ratification will bring about much change at all (Heilmann, 2015; Suchindah, 2015), especially since the limitation of the ASEAN Way will still be at play, there are still avenues in the agreement that warrant further closer analysis, for example, how Indonesia’s ratification will now affect the implementation of the ASEAN Haze Fund and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Haze.

Another recent interesting development in terms of haze governance at the regional level is Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which was passed in Parliament on August 5, 2014. The bill came close on the heels of several diplomatic incidents that displayed Singapore’s increasing annoyance at the ineffectiveness of ASEAN initiatives to mitigate haze. This began in 2008, when Singapore unilaterally called for assistance on haze from the United Nations, a move that was angrily described by Indonesia as “tantamount to interference in the domestic affairs of Indonesia” (Koh, 2008). This was followed by a highly publicized incident following a chain of haze-related ASEAN-level meetings in 2013 and 2014 where the Singaporean Minister of the Environment expressed frustration that Indonesia is unwilling to share its land maps with ASEAN member countries through the ASEAN Haze Monitoring System (HMS) mechanism (Tan, 2015). The Singapore Transboundary Haze Pollution Act criminalizes conduct that causes or contributes to haze pollution in Singapore. It is one of the few extraterrestrial environmental legislations in the world, and it empowers Singaporeans to sue companies using fires in Indonesia that result in haze in Singapore (Tan, 2015). Several companies are currently under investigation under the act, but no court case has been filed as yet.

The passing of this act provides interesting and important avenues of research on both the regional and national level. At the regional level, analysis can be carried out on if and how this act of unilateralism has impacted larger regional governance processes and norms. At the national level, scholars can investigate if this move is simply a one-off expression of frustration, or if it reflects any fundamental change in Singapore’s confidence in ASEAN, its dependence on the ASEAN Way’s norms, and also its national interests. Research could also extend to an analysis of whether other countries, like Malaysia, would likely follow suit in terms of unilateral actions, considering their own unique combinations of national interests. And of course, what does this mean for Singapore-Indonesia relations?

However, at the moment, literature is instead understandably focused on whether the act will actually be effective, or indeed more effective than the ATHP in addressing the haze, for Singapore at least. Scholars who have looked into this issue have so far been on the fence, equally pointing out both opportunities and limitations that this act has to offer (Bassano & Tan, 2014; Ewing, 2014; Tan, 2015). Practical complexities in particular, like the difficulty of obtaining accurate maps, and of determining the exact trajectories of haze particles from Indonesia to Singapore (both important in accurately determining culpability), have been highlighted (Ewing, 2014; Tan, 2015); however more can be said on how this extraterritorial law can contribute to the development of international law and environmental laws that transcend boundaries. Despite cautious optimism toward this act, scholars so far conclude that Singapore should still continue to pursue multilateral avenues, especially at the ASEAN level (Bassano & Tan, 2014). As cases continue to be investigated, and possibly brought to court, this subject will no doubt provide new fodder for analysis in the years to come.

A Final Word on Widodo

This article would be incomplete without the brief acknowledgment of a particularly interesting recent development in local Indonesian politics that is especially relevant to the larger regional discussion on haze: that of the rise to power of President Joko Widodo. President Jokowi took the reins from outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono just after the former president declared Indonesia’s ratification of the ATHP (Soeriaatmadja, 2014), and extension of the Moratorium on New Forest Concessions (Bland, 2013). Contrary to past presidents who have preferred to keep an arm’s length from the fires, Jokowi was the first president to go to “ground zero” in South Sumatra where fires broke out there, sending haze across the region in 2015 (Nazeer, 2015).

President Jokowi has declared the eradication of haze as one of his priorities while in office, and has become the first president to promise the region a concrete timeline to resolve the haze issue—three years (“Indonesia needs three years,” 2015). He has introduced several novel measures to combat fires, including linking fires to promotions for officials. Officials with increasing and larger fires in his or her administration area will be removed, and officials who show reduced fires and better fire management systems in their areas will be promoted (“Jokowi vows zero tolerance,” 2016). Furthermore, he controversially combined the Ministries of Environment and Forestry into one ministry (Murdiyarso, 2014), with a renewed mandate to urgently review (and revoke, if necessary) plantation companies who are found to damage forest and peatland ecosystems. So far, almost 20 licenses have been revoked under Jokowi’s administration (Tay, 2016). To complement the activities of the new ministry, he also established the national Peatland Restoration Agency to focus specifically on improving the management of peatlands across the country (Fardah, 2016).

President Jokowi is notable for being the first Indonesian president from a nonpolitical and nonmilitary background (Cochrane, 2014). Formerly the government of Jakarta, he was regarded as a reflection of popular support for new “clean” leaders (Nasir, 2012), which have not benefited from, and are not part of the almost ubiquitous patronage networks that dictate much of the politics and business in the country. It would be interesting to apply the ideas used in this author’s work (Varkkey, 2016), which highlights the role of patronage politics in the persistence of haze (allowing well-connected elites to gain otherwise protected lands, and to get away with the use of fire on said lands), to the current Jokowi era. Particularly, as Jokowi has declared a crackdown on government and business elites who contribute to fires and haze, would this change of leadership mark the beginnings of the dismantling of patron-client networks in the Indonesian political system?

Admittedly, patronage relationships are notoriously difficult to dismantle as elites are highly motivated to block, slow down, or dilute any statutory or policy changes that imperil the informal set of connections from which they benefit (Brinkerhoff & Goldsmith, 2004). However, with so much haze-specific action by Jokowi in less than two years in office, there is certainly room for close analysis into how this one man may change the direction of politics of fires and haze, not only in Indonesia, but also in the larger region.


This article by no means claims to be an exhaustive essay on the past, present, and future status of research on the politics of fires and haze in Southeast Asia. However, it is hoped to have highlighted the economic, social, political, and also scientific dynamics of haze in the region; and to have generated insight on questions and puzzles that have, and will continue to drive research in this area. What remains clear is that the region continues to be plagued by fires and haze, and it is become increasingly more urgent to find lasting solutions to this issue. The speed in which new scientific, economic, diplomatic, and also legal developments have arisen in response to haze makes this topic an especially challenging one for political scientists and international relations scholars to engage with. However, this dynamic research agenda provides interesting opportunities for transdisciplinary research that will potentially generate novel theoretical and empirical insights that can be applied by actors at the local, national, and regional level toward a haze-free Southeast Asia.


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