Stop the smog

Reading about the smog in Singapore, and listening to the recent debates makes me wonder. The world seemed to treat this disaster as an unexpected happening, and urgent political discussions are taking place in the region to try and address the problem.

But, rather than trying to deal with the symptoms of smog and air pollution, the international community should address the cause of the problem. The burning of forests to clear land for plantations is something that has been going on for years in many of the Southeast Asia nations, and it is an issue that has occupied local and international environmental NGOs for a long time.

Illegal forest clearing is one of the main causes for greenhouse gas emissions, causes major hardship for local communities, destroys the ecosystem for charismatic species, often lowers the groundwater table and eventually makes the land useless for agriculture. It is a one-way ticket to disaster, and the governments of the affected countries know this, which is why forest clearing is illegal. Yet – it still happens at a staggering scale.

Riau Province, Indonesia  Photograph: Aswaddy Hamid/Reuters

Riau Province, Indonesia
Photograph: Aswaddy Hamid/Reuters

In recent reports, local subsistence farmers are being accused as the main culprits, but a 2012 study by Greenpeace clearly points the finger at large business enterprises. These companies manage to get away with the illegal logging as a result of a mixture of local political support, corrupt management practices and financial pay-offs, made possible through a lack of enforcement capacity by the authorities.

The international community should help, and this could be through pressure from multinationals working at the end of the supply chain on the suppliers, through technical advice and support from international aid organisations and NGOs, by strengthening local communities and by physically helping the authorities to extinguish the fires.

Forest clearing is a problem that has simple solutions – deal with the greed and corruption of bad companies, support those that are following the law and help local communities to take charge of their territory. Naming and shaming may be a very effective way to start.

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