A Haze that Hides More than Singapore
Issue   |   Wed, 01/29/2014 - 00:59

To the casual observer the hazardous haze that covered Singapore this summer was merely an environmental disaster. A pause and closer inspection, however, show that its fog hid much more than Singapore’s angular skyscrapers. The haze resulted from illegal slash-and-burn land clearing for agricultural purposes in nearby Indonesia (much of which is covered in rainforest). As a native of a tropical country myself, I was surprised when I heard this. This is because slash and burn really is just cutting trees down and burning them (which bears little regard for global climate change), but also because after vegetation has been removed rainforest topsoil is notorious for lasting only a few crop cycles before being washed away (of course due to the heavy rainfall). In other words, the Indonesians were using measures which could not be sustained, desperate measures, to grow their economy.

Resting next to such desperation, Singapore, on the other hand, has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. This is not to single the island state out, but instead to portray that this haze is hiding an international debate flashpoint — developed countries don’t want poorer countries to fell their forests for environmental reasons but poorer countries feel the need to in order to develop. This is a hard debate to mediate, with environmental sustainability and global climate change resting on one side and poverty and economic inequality on the other. Even further, there are about six million people in Singapore and over two hundred and fifty million in Indonesia. This is a moral dilemma because it raises the worrisome question of whether the prosperity of the many justifies the suffering of the few.

Economics offers a potential solution to this dilemma because it describes the conflict in much more businesslike terms. If Singapore is dissatisfied with the present level of pollution (also considering that this is unlikely to be the last such incident) it should simply pay Indonesia to leave its forests standing. This way Indonesia can develop and Singapore remain perpetually haze free. In fact, there is a similar arrangement in my home country Guyana, where Norway (a major producer of fossil fuels) provides economic aid in exchange for the preservation of our forests. Whether this is feasible requires research and much negotiation but at the very least this avenue is worth exploring.

But this solution is not to ignore the moral dilemma above — after all, Singapore’s citizens rightly argue that there is no reason they should be forced to pay for the irresponsible actions of lawbreakers in Indonesia. On the other hand, poor Indonesians must feel trapped because they cannot use their country’s resources to, one day, earn as much as those so very nearby. What this solution does is recognize that both sides have legitimate rights — the right to breathe clean air and the right to earn a living. Given that Indonesia has just removed a fuel subsidy that aided the poor (causing prices to rise by 44%) perhaps now is an opportune time to come to an arrangement that assists Indonesia’s poor. To ensure this never happens again it is vitally important that both countries realize that this haze was not just an environmental disaster, but the signal flare of an economic struggle.

Louis Verchot (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 10:18

This is an interesting opinion, but the reality on the ground is a bit more complex. There are several things to note about the recent fires.

First, most of the fires occurred outside the forests and in land that had been cleared in the past 6 years. So these are not forest fires in the strictest sense, rather they should be considered to be agricultural fires.

Second, some (~25%) of the fires started in oil palm concessions, many of which are owned by Singaporean and Malaysian companies. Some fires occurred on lands immediately adjacent to these concessions. It appears that medium sized enterprises are becoming a bigger part of the picture. So there is a question of who is burning? Were the fires adjacent to the concessions a means of illegally expanding the concessions? Were they driven by out-grower schemes?

Third, fires are frequently used for land clearing in Indonesia because it is cheap and effective, but this year in particular the prevailing winds took the haze to Singapore where it got more media attention.

Fourth, the fires that created the haze occurred on peatlands, where agriculture should be prohibited entirely for climate and biodiversty reasons. Peat fires put more haze producing chemicals into the air than do fires on mineral soils.

It is not as simple as the opinion expresses. More detailed analyses are needed.

There are a few interesting analyses on the web about this: