ASEAN signs first ‘green’ pact


Southeast Asia claimed an environmental world first Monday, signing a regional agreement to tackle costly cross-border pollution caused by land and forest fires.

Environment ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) inked the treaty on “transboundary haze pollution” at a ceremony in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

It binds member states to cooperating in preventing haze by controlling fires, establishing early warning systems, exchanging information and technology and providing mutual assistance.

The agreement is part of a Regional Haze Action Plan adopted by ASEAN after serious smoke pollution in 1997 and 1998 cost some nine billion U.S. dollars in economic losses in areas including agricultural production and tourism.

“The ASEAN agreement is the first such regional arrangement in the world which binds a group of contiguous states to tackle land and forest fires and its resultant transboundary haze pollution,” the group said in a statement.

ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino said the agreement signalled a major step forward in acknowledging the importance of regional cooperation in coping with the fire hazards.

“ASEAN considers this event as extremely important. It is one of ASEAN’s most significant agreements,” he said in an opening address to a World Conference and Exhibition on Land and Forest Fire Hazards here.

Severino said the agreement mapped out obligations over monitoring and coordinating action and outlined procedures for transport of personnel and materials in response to forest fires.

The agreement also provides for the establishment of an ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control.

However, terms of the document can only be enforced 60 days after being ratified by six eligible signatories, with no time frame or penalties for the failure to adhere to the terms.

“The signatories have a common interest, that is they all have a joint interest in complying with the rules stated in the agreement,” Severino told reporters after the signing.

“There is no punitive rule, because the underlying factor in this agreement is the common interest of all the ASEAN members.”

The director of Malaysia’s Department of Environment, Rosnani Ibrahim, told AFP ASEAN member countries had “different levels of readiness” and needed to develop their own regulations on open burning and other pollution related problems before being able to ratify the agreement.

“Right now what is important is to enhance capacity of the member countries because nothing can be done unless the parties in the agreement are sufficiently equipped to act.”

Countries such as Indonesia faced problems including a lack of manpower and financial resources, she said.

“I can understand the situation in Indonesia, they need more time to work on it.”

Legal research ahead of the agreement was carried out by the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, with assistance from the United Nations Environment Program and the Asian Development Bank.

The 1997-98 pollution was caused by fires in Indonesia, many of them deliberately set by planters clearing land for cultivation.

ASEAN environment ministers or their representatives were due to hold closed door discussions Tuesday to discuss a mechanism for implementing the haze agreement.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.