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Public and Religious Values in the Context of Local and Transboundary Haze Pollution in Indonesia

By Alfajri[1], Azhari Setiawan[1], Helena Varkkey[2], Matthew Ashfold[3], Laura De Pretto[4], Wong Pui Yi[3],[5], Christopher Ives[6]

Cover Image Credit: Alfajri 2019


Haze pollution, originating mainly from forest and land fires in Indonesia, is a decades-long transboundary environmental problem in Southeast Asia. Systematically understanding and applying the Indonesian society’s deeply held values in haze-related policymaking and governance decisions at both the national and regional level is vital in ensuring buy-in among these key communities in addressing fires and haze. Our research has revealed the potential power of religious values to meaningfully enhance fire and haze reduction efforts across such a deeply religious society. We suggest that any policy approach seeking to influence individual behaviours related to consumer choice or environmental action in Indonesia should meaningfully engage with the public’s religious values for improved outcomes. Policymakers should also not discount the role of religious actors in formulating, campaigning and advocating such policies for improved outcomes.

Forest fires, mostly occurring in disturbed or degraded peatlands in Indonesia’s outer islands of Sumatera and Kalimantan, produce toxic smoke known as ‘haze’. Those living closest to the fires suffer the most: visibility is severely compromised, limiting social and economic activity, and exposure has serious immediate and long-term health effects on the respiratory system, skin and eyes. The severity of haze varies by year and is closely linked to climatic patterns.

The 2019 haze captured worldwide attention when photos of a ‘red sky’ in Jambi was widely circulated. The World Bank estimated that this 2019 haze episode, involving fires on an estimated 1.6 million hectares of land, caused damages and economic losses of at least USD5.2 billion, or around 0.5% of Indonesia’s GDP. The more severe haze of 2015, affecting 2.6 million hectares, was estimated to have cost around USD16 billion or 2% of the country’s GDP. To put this figure into context, this was around twice the cost of the Aceh tsunami reconstruction effort in 2004.

While a serious local problem in itself, this smoke often also travels across national boundaries, creating a unique international environmental problem known as transboundary haze. Indonesia’s immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Singapore, are usually the worst affected, but severe transboundary haze can reach up to eight ASEAN nations, including Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, and Cambodia. Recent research has estimated that the region-wide 2015 haze caused around 40,000 to 100,000 excess deaths.

Decades of political impasse calls for a novel approach

While ASEAN has been at the centre of regional efforts to mitigate haze for more than thirty years, this issue still regularly triggers political spats and damages delicate diplomatic relations between Indonesia and its neighbouring countries. As political solutions to this recurring environmental problem remain elusive, it is important for policymakers, the business community, civil society actors and organisations in Southeast Asia to continuously search for coordinated and comprehensive policy approaches to mitigate the haze.

Policies, especially when they have been proven to be less than effective over time, need to take into account additional factors in order to obtain the desired effects. One factor that has received limited attention has been public values, and especially those values that relate to or originate from religious beliefs and traditions. Understanding the composition of values related to a certain issue within a community can significantly improve the effectiveness of policies through predicting likely points of public opposition and tailoring messages to be more accurately received by the public. For example, Firth (1998) has called for the inclusion of public values as “a credible component of the rational decision-making model”, warning that if this is not done, there would be a deepening spiral of distrust between the public and public agencies. In this vein, our research, funded by the Toyota Foundation[7], investigated the role of public values as a pathway towards constructive cross-border sentiments and engagement, and proposes that they should be considered in haze related policymaking efforts.

Considering that Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have a long history of shared economic interests facilitated by sustained flows of people, technologies, and investments within the region, our project aims to understand how the public in the three countries relate to the haze, and how this information can be effectively integrated into policymaking processes and inform political responses to the problem. In collecting data in these three countries, we conducted online surveys followed by focus group discussions (FGDs) and in-depth interviews with experts. Our observations focused on how public values, sentiments, and perceptions connect to the haze issue. We explored deeper into individual values, namely environmental, religious, and consumer values, as well as political and community values as part of collective values.

In this commentary, we unpack our findings related to Indonesia, focusing mainly on our FGDs which were held in Pekanbaru, Riau on 22 and 23 January 2020, led by a team of researchers at the Department of International Relations, Universitas Abdurrab. The FGDs were attended by 18 participants, spread equally across two sessions. These participants were diverse in terms of background (employment, education, religion, and ethnicity) and sexes. All participants had personally experienced both the 2015 and 2019 haze episodes in Riau.

Individual values and the importance of religion

Despite haze-producing fires often being linked to unsustainable agribusiness practices, participants of our Indonesian FGDs showed little awareness and minimal interest in sustainability labelling on consumer products, and even less so for specifically anti-haze product labels. A similar trend was found in FGDs conducted in Malaysia and Singapore, representing a contrast to the data we collected via online surveys across all countries.[8]

Most respondents in Indonesia stated that they did not examine product labels. For those who did, it was to check ingredients, expiration date, or halal (permissible according to Islamic law) status. When showed examples of sustainability labels (see Figure 1), almost none could recognise any of them, and they believed that this was the same for most people in their communities. Those who did recognise certain sustainability labels admitted that they did not use this knowledge in their purchasing decisions. As might be expected, price was the primary concern when it came to consumption; a similar finding across our other FGD sessions in Malaysia and Singapore.

Figure 1: Examples of haze-related sustainability labels

Interestingly, several participants were enthusiastic about the government and businesses engaging with uniquely Indonesian consumer values to increase awareness and effectiveness of sustainability labelling. One notable idea was to formally associate sustainability with halal-ness. Indeed, halal labelling has been a huge part of the Indonesian consumer culture. This year, the Indonesian government has put into place a law for mandatory halal labelling on all products. Following the logic that something halal should not harm the environment or any of God’s creations, the suggestion from the focus group was to include sustainability as part of the formal requirements to obtain a halal label. This solution, rooted in religious values, was unique among the countries investigated, where Malaysian and Singaporean respondents instead highlighted the importance of education in raising consumer awareness.

In this vein of religious values, participants agreed that they did not ‘blame’ God for the haze crisis. On the contrary, they viewed God as the only saviour during extremely serious haze, as all human (such as governments or corporations) efforts had failed to provide solutions time and again. This belief correlated strongly with our survey findings which found that almost 70% of Indonesians increase their religious activities during the haze. It also correlates with the regular incidences of special prayers held for rain during the haze in Indonesia. In contrast, respondents in Malaysia and Singapore generally did not increase their religious activities significantly during haze periods; a finding that matched Indonesian respondents’ perceptions of Malaysian and Singaporeans as being more ‘secular’.

An overwhelming majority of our survey respondents considered protecting the environment and conserving nature to be a guiding principle (value) in their lives. However, this positive survey response may have been influenced by the context of the survey itself, which focuses on the environment, and the possible higher levels of acquiescence among Indonesians (see Footnote 1). The FGD discussants indeed flagged this: our respondents explained that environmentalism remained low on the priority scale among Indonesians, overshadowing other issues like the economy, education, health and infrastructure. This has obvious parallels in current public policy, including the recent approval of the controversial Omnibus Law, which favours job creation over environmental protection. Furthermore, participants opined that even among those placing higher importance on environmental values, these values would generally remain at the cognitive level and would only rarely translate into practical efforts in their daily life.

One respondent opined that the relatively low importance of environmental values might be because religious leaders have failed to stress the importance of environmental concerns among their followers. This importance placed on religious leadership reflects the fact that Indonesians are regularly ranked among the most religious people in the world. Respondents discussed how, in Indonesian society, religious leaders play a significant role in shaping public understanding and behaviour. However, they reflected that the environmental narrative is sorely lacking in the current religious conversation in the country. One rare example to the contrary would be in 2016 when the Indonesian Islamic Council issued a fatwa on forest fires. Preliminary research has linked this fatwa to the increase in awareness of the Peatland Restoration Agency’s restoration targets in the Riau region.

An underlying thread throughout the discussions related to individual values was the important role of religion in almost every aspect of Indonesians’ personal lives. An Islamic ecological paradigm, which incorporates concepts of environmental sustainability,protection, and conservation is notable here: the Quran advocates trusteeship of nature, as all of nature is seen as ayat signs of revelation of the divine. Both the Islamic ecological paradigm, and the context of Indonesians as being among the most religious in the world, can inform haze policy direction. Our findings signal that any policy approach seeking to influence individual behaviours related to consumer choice or environmental action in Indonesia should meaningfully engage with the public’s religious values for improved outcomes. Policymakers should also not discount the role of religious actors in formulating, campaigning and advocating such policies for improved outcomes.

Prioritising collective values and solidarity

In the context of political values, respondents overwhelmingly agreed that the environment is very closely related to politics in Indonesia. As the access to natural resources and concessions are often traded for political support, effective political governance of this sector is especially problematic. This reflects recent scholarship on the limitations of land-use governance in Indonesia, focusing on patronage relationships between political and business actors.

Reflecting this, respondents in the Indonesian survey and FGDs identified both the Indonesian government and related corporations as the top two groups most responsible for the haze crisis, with the government perceived as shouldering most responsibility. In terms of solving the crisis, Indonesians identified the government, NGOs, and corporations as having major responsibility. This high placement of NGOs among Indonesians, which is notably in contrast with the other two countries surveyed, reflect Indonesia’s comparatively empowered civil society with the ability to bring about real change. Indeed, successful examples abound within the context of haze. In 2018, activists submitted a citizen lawsuit against the local and central government to the Supreme Court in 2018, where the government was found guilty of negligence over the 2015 haze crisis. Courts also recently ruled in favour of two environmental NGOs on their request for a judicial review of Riau’s Provincial Spatial Plan.

External actors, particularly Malaysian and Singaporean governments and businesses, ranked lower in responsibility for both causing and solving the haze. This finding is especially interesting as it runs contrary to much of the Indonesian government’s rhetoric over transboundary haze, which often tries to deflect the blame for fires and haze to other countries and foreign companies. While it is well known that many foreign (Malaysian and Singaporean) investors are involved in key Indonesian sectors linked to haze, our respondents still believed that since the fires originate from within the country, Indonesian actors remain most responsible.

This finding revealed interesting linkages with the discussion on community values. FGD participants showed considerable empathy, sympathy, and solidarity with Malaysian and Singaporeans, who also suffered from haze pollution. Some also admitted feeling embarrassed because Indonesia was unable to resolve this issue all this time. They lamented the Indonesian government’s decision of rejecting help from neighbouring countries to combat the haze, which they felt was genuine assistance offered in solidarity. These Riau-based respondents instead felt less solidarity with fellow Indonesian in areas that did not suffer from haze, like in Java island. This was linked to incidences where Javanese played down the haze problem, both on social media and through official statements. For example, a high-ranking Jakarta-based official had publicly claimed that the haze in the outer islands was “not as bad as reported by the media.

This positive solidarity with neighbouring societies offers interesting insights on how ASEAN can be leveraged by Indonesia more effectively over haze. Indonesia has often strategically used ASEAN Way elements like non-interference to limit and forestall more effective ASEAN engagement. For example, Indonesia delayed ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution for over a decade, continually rejects assistance offered through the ASEAN mechanism, and is still delaying the establishment of an on-site ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control. Contrary to this official stance, our respondents feel that the government should allow ASEAN to play its part more effectively.

Overall, while respondents in Riau supported the need for effective cross-border burden-sharing among the key ASEAN countries involved, perhaps due to their proximity to the problem, they at the same time seem to have a good grasp of the complex political economy and diplomatic difficulties present in such an approach. This could explain the higher expectations on NGOs and ASEAN in solving the haze compared to our findings in Malaysia and Singapore.

Connecting publicly held values and public policy

Indonesia (and Indonesians) are uniquely positioned as key players in both the cause and solution of the haze. At the same time, there is a great distance (both geographically and psychologically), between policymakers (in Jakarta) and the communities most directly involved (in Sumatera and Kalimantan). Our surveys, FGDs, and interviews held at the community level in Riau provided the opportunity to better assess the sentiments of these uniquely positioned Indonesian citizens in Riau towards the transboundary haze crisis, beyond the official stance of the Indonesian government.

Systematically understanding and applying the Indonesian society’s deeply held values in haze-related policymaking and governance decisions at both the national and regional level is vital in ensuring buy-in among these key communities. For example, this exercise has revealed the potential power of religious values to meaningfully enhance fire and haze reduction efforts across such a deeply religious society. In addition, the strong sense of community solidarity reflected in our findings could inform efforts to achieve the more community-based strategies of the ASEAN Haze-Free Roadmap, including Strategy 5 on enhancing cooperation and information exchange and Strategy 6 on enhancing public awareness and participation.

Our findings show the virtue of a multi-stakeholder approach in overcoming the recurring transboundary haze crisis. Everyone in the entire supply chain plays a role - from consumers to consumer-facing businesses, to manufacturers, to suppliers of raw materials, to farmers. Sustainability and consistency of government involvement and collaboration with various stakeholders in a wider segment of society, including but not limited to academics, civil society, business people, and particularly religious figures in Indonesia, are key in increasing not only public education and participation, but also transparency and accountability in policymaking and implementation to cultivate more sustainable ecological behaviour.

Endnotes: [1] Department of International Relations, Universitas Abdurrab, Riau, Indonesia [2] Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia [3] School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia [4] School of Social and Health Science, Leeds Trinity University [5] Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya [6] School of Geography, University of Nottingham UK

[7] This research is supported by the Toyota Foundation Grant Program 2017 through our project “The Southeast Asian haze crisis: Public values as a pathway towards constructive cross-border sentiments and engagement” (D17-R-0421). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Toyota Foundation.

[8] Across all countries, a majority of the survey respondents indicated that they check sustainability labels on products. Research has suggested that survey respondents in Asia tend to have higher levels of acquiescence (generally defined as the reluctant acceptance of something without protest, or in this context, answering survey questions according to how they think they should respond) than respondents in Western nations, which may explain these results. This revealed the value of the FGD method when used to triangulate against survey data. The skepticism of FGD respondents towards this survey finding helped to moderate our interpretations of such results.

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