By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Southeast Asian governments must improve cross-border collaboration if they are serious about punishing companies found to have started forest fires that send harmful smoke drifting across the region, researchers said on Thursday.
Environment officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Cambodia this week, where the Malaysian delegation reportedly raised the issue of air pollution caused by a spike in fires, mostly in Indonesia.
"At the moment there is a lot of finger-pointing," said Helena Varkkey, a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, who has researched the problem for more than 15 years.
Indonesia has accused Malaysian firms over fires on its land, while Malaysia has denied responsibility or insisted Indonesia should act, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Indonesia and its Southeast Asian neighbours are regularly hit by thick smog from slash-and-burn clearance of land and forests for palm oil production and farming, causing premature deaths, respiratory infections, and school and airport closures.
Last month, the environment ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia traded blame for this year's haze, with Jakarta calling out local subsidiaries of Malaysian companies.
Malaysia's environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, last week said a new law was being drafted to hold Malaysian businesses and individuals accountable for causing pollution in foreign countries, local media reported.
But a similar law introduced in neighbouring Singapore - the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 - has had little impact due to a lack of maps and support from Indonesian authorities, forest experts said.
Varkkey said Malaysia's new law would help it address company activities by alleviating "political sensitivities".
"Malaysia has the benefit of having the Singaporean law 'model' that was established earlier, so it has a good opportunity to examine the strengths and weaknesses of that exercise and come up with a law that will be more effective," she added.
This year's haze is the worst since 2015, with 66,000 fire alerts in Indonesia from January through the end of September, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think-tank.
The 2015 haze outbreak - which cost Indonesia $16 billion - was linked to more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, according to a Harvard University study.
"Of the countries historically most responsible for the world's deforestation, Indonesia is the only one that's actually reduced its deforestation rate in recent years," WRI Indonesia researchers wrote this week.
"This year's fires season could derail this promising trend," they added.
At the ASEAN meeting in Siem Reap, officials vowed to work together to achieve a haze-free region by 2020.
But few details were given on how that would be achieved, other than speeding up the establishment of an ASEAN centre to support coordinated action.
Malaysia's environment minister and Indonesia's delegation at the ASEAN gathering did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.