Southeast Asia’s Transboundary Haze: Obstacles to a Regional Solution

Southeast Asia’s Transboundary Haze: Obstacles to a Regional Solution

Transboundary haze pollution is a yearly occurrence in Southeast Asia, especially for the region’s southern countries, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. This has resulted in a variety of ecological, economic and health effects. ASEAN has sought to address the issue, notably through the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Individual member states have also taken matters into their own hands. In 2014, Singapore adopted a Transboundary Haze Pollution Act that holds entities accountable for actions that cause or contribute to haze. Following suit, Malaysia tabled its own Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in September 2019. However, in August 2020, the (new) Malaysian government announced its decision to shelve the Act, citing sovereignty concerns and a need for ASEAN regional cooperation.

Yet experience tells us that the so-called ‘ASEAN Way’ can be an obstacle to effectively addressing regional transboundary issues – the transboundary haze problem is no exception. A permanent solution, however, is urgently needed to prevent the yearly haze from accumulating further costs.

Complex roots

There is no quick fix to ASEAN’s transboundary haze issue. Simply put, the yearly haze can be attributed to seasonal fires that occur in Indonesian forests and farmland – in particular, peat soils – usually to clear land for cultivation.

However, identifying those responsible for the burning has been a critical challenge. Smallholder farmers in Indonesia often use (and have been doing so for generations) the slash-and-burn technique to clear land quickly for cultivation. They are allowed – by law – to slash and burn up to two hectares of land for agricultural purposes, though this limit is often surpassed. As a result, following the 2019 haze, the Indonesian government upped its crackdown on these individuals, imposing the strictest form of punishment, including seizing their land.

This, however, is mostly a rubber stamp for action as many of these individual smallholder farmers are employed by large corporations who clear the land for their plantations. Large-scale clearing in Indonesia is illegal, but corruption and mismanagement mean that authorities go after the small fish and let the big fish pass. Thus, although nine companies were deemed responsible for the 2015 haze fires, as of 2019, none have had their land seized or their operating licenses revoked.

To make matters more complicated, these companies are not necessarily Indonesian, resulting in a back-and-forth blame game between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore for who should be held accountable. For instance, the Indonesian government accused 4 Malaysian companies of causing the 2019 haze, which the Malaysian government denied.

Is the ASEAN Way the best way?

Transboundary haze pollution has been on the ASEAN agenda for 25 years. Key milestones include the 1985 Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the 1995 Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution and the follow-up Haze Technical Task Force, and the establishment of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Haze in 1997, which gave rise to the Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP). All of these were soft law institutions, and so had no legal repercussions or obligations for polluting member states.

As a result, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was proposed in 2001 and adopted in 2002. This sought to add a legally binding dimension to the RHAP and create a treaty-regime around the issue of transboundary haze. It calls on member states to cooperate in preventing, monitoring and mitigating against transboundary haze pollution; respond to requests for relevant information sought by neighbouring countries; and take legal, administrative and/or other measures to implement the obligations under the agreement. In 2015, it was finally ratified by all member states following Indonesia’s decision to sign up.

Yet despite the myriad of treaties, agreements and institutions, transboundary haze continues to be a problem. Further, ratification by all member states of the Agreement is not likely to affect existing efforts to address the issue as – like with most (if not all) ASEAN agreements – the Agreement is still underpinned by an adherence to the ‘ASEAN Way’.

The ASEAN Way refers to a set of principles that guide interactions amongst ASEAN member states. It emphasises informality, non-interference and consensus-building. While it has evolved over the decades to allow an arguably more flexible interpretation of its principles, it nonetheless reinforces a state-centric commitment to sovereignty which ultimately impedes collective action.

In the case of haze, this means that member states have a difficult time holding one another – and the relevant entities – to account. Sovereignty concerns, especially, mean that not only is it difficult for member states to take unilateral action on a foreign entity engaging in polluting activities within their territory; but it also complicates cooperation efforts, as member states maintain the right to withhold the necessary information to prevent, monitor, and mitigate against the problem. In that sense, ASEAN’s guiding principles in many ways run counter to forging an effective regional response to the transboundary haze issue.

Is there space for domestic-level action?

On the one hand, the ASEAN Agreement contains wide enough provisions that allow for strong national laws and domestic prosecution. It is for this reason that the Malaysian Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was welcomed by NGOs and environmental campaigners as an opportunity for the Malaysian government to take action on (Malaysian) companies responsible for fires abroad.

Yet, on the other hand, it is difficult for domestic legislation to fully address the transboundary nature of the issue, as, by virtue of being transboundary, it cuts across jurisdictions and is likely to encounter sovereignty sensitivities. In that sense, domestic action is plagued by a similar issue. That said, the decision to shelve the act for the sake of regional cooperation simply prolongs the issue, as ASEAN’s track record tells us that an effective regional solution is far-fetched. Ultimately, some degree of accountability – albeit limited – is better than none.


Southeast Asia’s yearly transboundary haze will persist unless a region-wide solution emerges. The issue with this, however, is that region-wide solutions in the context of ASEAN are constrained by the bloc’s commitment to the ASEAN Way. Not only does this hamper an effective regional response, but it also makes it difficult for individual member states to implement domestic legislation that complements the ASEAN Agreement. As long as this is the case, ASEAN member states will be disinclined to take firmer action to address the root of the problem.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Environment

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