Palm oil politics and transboundary haze in Southeast Asia

In this episode we discuss the role of palm oil politics and other agricultural practices, politics, and diplomacy on transboundary haze in Southeast Asia.

Our guest Dr Helena Varkkey is an Associate Professor of Environmental Politics at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Universiti Malaya. Her areas of expertise include transboundary haze governance in Southeast Asia and global palm oil politics. She has almost two decades of experience in qualitative research,conducting fieldwork, interviews, and focus groups among various government and non-government stakeholders, and has built up extensive research networks in countries across ASEAN. She has published, edited and produced several books and reports for international agencies.

Our interviewer Maggie Chel Gee Ooi is a research fellow from the Institute of Climate Change from the National University of Malaysia, also known as UKM. Her field of expertise includes weather prediction and air quality modelling using numerical methods. She has worked closely with the government bodies to fill in the weather and air quality science gaps in tropical Malaysia. She has actively published peer-reviewed papers and featured in magazines and newspapers.

Episode notes and references:

Music by: Ritesh Prasanna

Audio editing and transcripts by: Paras Singh and Raag Sethi

Podcast website:


HV: Helena Varkkey (Guest)

MCGO: Maggie Chel Gee Ooi (Interviewer)

SG: Shahzad Gani (Host)

SG: I’m your host, Shahzad Gani, and welcome to another episode of Atmospheric Tales. Our guest today is an Associate Professor of Environmental Politics at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Universiti Malaya. Her areas of expertise include transboundary haze governance in Southeast Asia and global palm oil politics. She has almost two decades of experience in qualitative research, conducting fieldwork, interviews, and focus groups among various government and non-government stakeholders, and has built up extensive research networks in countries across ASEAN. She has published, edited and produced several books and reports for international agencies. I’m excited to have our guest, Dr Helena Varkkey. Our interviewer today is Maggie Chel Gee Ooi; she is a research fellow from the Institute of Climate Change from the National University of Malaysia, also known as UKM. Her field of expertise includes weather prediction and air quality modelling using numerical methods. She has worked closely with government bodies to fill in the weather and air quality science gaps in tropical Malaysia. She has actively published peer-reviewed papers and featured in magazines and newspapers. Welcome to the show, Helena and Maggie!

MCGO: Thank you, Shahzad, and I would like to welcome Dr Helena. Transboundary haze has been a recurring problem in Southeast Asia especially during the months of August to October, when the region is relatively dry. In the case of strong hot and dry weather anomalies—El-Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO)—the burning becomes more intense and sustains much longer, emitting a large amount of haze.  For instance, according to MetMalaysia, in mid-June, the probability of ENSO conditions to strengthen by the end of the year is over 90%. Singapore Institute of International Affairs has also issued their first-ever red alert for transboundary haze in 2023, on 20 June, which means this year, there’s a high possibility that it will be a burning year for South Asia. And, quoting from them, “heatwaves this year will be a stress test for cooperation between governments and the private sector”. In a past episode, we had a discussion with Professor Puji Lestari about transboundary haze in Southeast Asia, addressing especially the role of peat fires as an important source of regional air pollution. We understand transboundary haze is a complex and multi-faceted issue as well as it is not new; this burning problem has been around for quite some time, since the 1990s. What are the main challenges of combating this transboundary haze, as we understand the countries affected by the haze are not the main contributors of the haze?

HV: Yes, so definitely, there’s a lot more than just the physical or the biological problem of haze. One reason why we still have transboundary haze in this region—it started to become an issue about 1980s and we’re still facing it today—is because of that transboundary factor that you’ve highlighted. So the fact that countries like Indonesia, which is the main source of the haze, of course, Indonesians are the ones who suffer the most because those who are closest to the fires will be the one who are suffering the most, in terms of health and other effects. But the issue is then when the haze crosses over borders, so it reaches usually countries like Singapore and Malaysia in the region, and sometimes even Brunei and beyond Thailand. And this is where it gets a bit complicated, because if we look at the drivers of haze, which I believe Professor Puji would have touched on, has a lot to do with land use change in Indonesia, and to a certain extent in Malaysia as well. And if you look at Indonesia, a lot of this land use change is linked to sectors like palm oil, and pulp and paper; and when we look even more closely, the companies which are involved in this are not only Indonesian companies, they are international companies, international investors, and often from places like Malaysia or Singapore. So it becomes a very sensitive diplomatic issue, where the source of haze is coming from one country, but the actual drivers are multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral, as well as multinational as well. So, what we always see when there’s haze, is first of all, that will be the sort of question of whose fault is it; it becomes sort of a finger pointing issue, when countries complain about the haze or when countries say that, you know, something should be done. Indonesia, for example, will find it sometimes a bit, you know, being made a victim, when countries like Malaysia or Singapore say that, you know Indonesia, why don’t you do something about the haze? And this is when it starts like, oh, why are you getting angry at us, you know, because it’s your companies which are also involved on the ground in Indonesia. So, this makes it a very difficult diplomatic situation to resolve before you can actually reach the stage where you’re actually doing something about the haze, the stage where assistance is offered, the stage where capacity improvements are done, co-operation on a regional level. So, the very first stage of actually talking about the problem is already a very sensitive diplomatic issue; so I think this has been part of it. Every, every year, when we have haze, these diplomatic sensitivities come to the fore, and this very much complicates the actual action and mitigation activities, which are surrounding haze. And the other thing that’s also related to this, the fact that haze is multinational in that sense, where sometimes you would have companies which are headquartered in Singapore or in Malaysia, identify, as you know, having a hand in on the ground, the on the ground situation, it becomes a question of who is accountable for monitoring, and who is accountable for enforcing. Perhaps headquarters which are in a country far away, it is very difficult for them to know what’s going on, on the ground, or very difficult for them to actually have a good handle on what’s going on. Of course, they are responsible for their subsidiaries, but how does that work in actuality; this is something that is not so easy. And when you have Indonesian authorities, for example, to what extent are they able to enforce, you know, regulations on foreign companies? Of course, it may be straightforward, but not always. So all these kind of challenges do come up when we face such a trans-boundary issue. So, I think I’ll pause there for now.

MCGO: Yeah. Then, from your sharing, transboundary haze in its nature, it is a bit tricky, because it’s a regional issue. What do you think such regional cooperative entities such as like, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, can help to mitigate this condition, Dr Helena?

HV: Yeah, so ASEAN has played a very big role, actually, on haze. ASEAN since the 1980s, has already identified haze as a regional issue, not a national issue, because it does affect quite a big chunk of ASEAN countries. So, there have been a lot of activities, a lot of agreements that ASEAN has put together, which is impressive in itself, because ASEAN, you know, is very much known for its ASEAN way approach, which is a bit like hands, arm’s length approach, non-confrontational, non-interference policies. But for haze, they’ve kind of tried to move beyond that. So, we have technically legally binding agreement with the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement. But however, of course, at the early stage, we did realise that the agreement is not that strong. It’s been identified as toothless by quite a few scholars in the region. But what ASEAN has done is that they’ve tried to operationalize this agreement further over the years. So for example, there was the roadmap that was enforced in the last decade, and that roadmap was meant to operationalize certain things in the agreement. And there has been some successes, but some areas are not fully operationalized yet, and I think these are the opportunity areas that ASEAN can really focus on as they are moving forward. So in the past, or up to date, ASEAN has been really helpful in sharing information about the haze. So you know, we have the ASEAN Specialised Metrological Centre based in Singapore, which is a very important body for coordinating information, sharing alerts on haze; all this has been very helpful across the region, so that at least countries are more prepared to face the haze. However, there are certain things that ASEAN is still working on. So, things like there was supposed to be a Transboundary Haze Pollution Centre, a dedicated centre to coordinate haze co-operation, which was supposed to be in Indonesia; but currently, it has not been put to fruition yet and currently, it’s still housed under the Environment Division of ASEAN, which also deals with a lot of other things, so it’s not ideal. So, these are some of the directions that you know, further regional co-operation can do well with. Another thing that I think is really, potentially very useful for ASEAN to look into is the importance of standardised indicators. So as we know, haze is a regional multi-country issue, and when you have multiple countries, you also have multiple ways of measuring haze or reporting haze, so this is what is faced with in ASEAN right now. So for example, for air quality indicators, we don’t have a standard indicator yet; the air quality figure in Johor Bahru, which is in Malaysia, can differ from what is in Singapore, which is just very nearby, because of the different ways of calculating air quality. And this will affect, of course, the way information is processed, the way that the problem is understood, and various other things as well. So, this is something that can be standardised at the ASEAN level, and this hopefully, will be able to translate to more accurate monitoring, more accurate accountability, and also enforcement at the international, or at the regional level, at least. So, this is what ASEAN has been doing, and I think this is, perhaps, a few directions that ASEAN can move forward on this issue.

MCGO: It is; quite glad to hear about some of this effort that has been done through ASEAN, and also I hope that the Transboundary Haze Pollution Centre could really bring some light on this haze issue. It is commonly known that this slash-and-burn practice in the agricultural sector is one of the main causes of this transboundary haze problem; and, the palm oil industry is one of the main followers of such practice, and it has also received enormous international pressure on the sustainability of its production. Looking at the bright side, is this pressure changing how the palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia operate for now, Dr?

HV: This is an example of a very sensitive issue, actually, in this sector. So, actually, slash-and-burn is something that is very normal in this part of the world, as part of the agricultural landscape. And in the past, there was a lot of link between slash-and-burn and haze. But we have now understood a bit more that actually, slash-and-burn practices, if it happens outside of peatland areas, is not such a big problem. And actually, slash-and-burn practices, which are done by most of the small holders don’t very often occur in peatland areas. So this is actually perhaps, the significance of slash-and-burn has been amplified in the past, but now we are having a bit of a better understanding of how to understand things on the ground. So indeed, there has been a lot of link to palm oil industry, and one of the good things of this attention that has been put on the palm oil industry, because of haze, is that there definitely has been changes of practices on the ground. So in the past, definitely, there has been activity, I wouldn’t say slash-and-burn, so to speak, as slash-and-burn is usually related to sort of small scale agriculture, but it’s more about land clearing in preparation for plantations. So in the past, this has been quite common place, where if you are on peatlands, the land would be cleared, and perhaps the timber sold for, you know, as timber, and this would be used as start-up capital to start the plantation. And what would happen then is sometimes as a cheap and efficient and quick way to prepare the land, because you need clear land to plant, would be to burn, and this was the practice in the past. But because there’s been so much attention, the big players have definitely, you know, moved away from this practice because they know that it’s really hard to defend this practice; there are alternative ways that are more environmentally friendly, less risky. And definitely, we have seen a move away from these practices among the palm oil industry, and among the pulp and paper industry. Of course, I cannot say for sure that it completely does not happen anymore, but definitely, the regularity of this has reduced, and this is a good thing because of this attention. But, you know, the challenge still remains that peatlands are a very sensitive landscape, and the fact that these plantations are still on the peatlands; this makes it continuously a risk of fire. So plantations need to continuously take care of their water levels, have to continuously be aware if things are getting too dry, they need to have standby a fire brigades; so, it’s a constant challenge of managing the risk in this landscape. And you know, when you have communities living nearby, there might be some risk of fires that would occur and this would spread. You know, sometimes there would even be issues of land grabbing, where communities may use arson as a way to show their dissatisfaction for this land grab, which they feel that, you know, is violating their rights. So all of these risk factors still exist when you have palm oil plantations, or pulp and paper plantations on peatland. So, this is the challenge that still exists, and these kinds of things are the ones that are more likely to cause fires, disturb areas of peatlands, more so than the actual “lighting a match”  and you know, causing a fire.

MCGO: I see. So resonating to that, there’s actually several certifications that were developed to assure the customer and consumer that the palm oil production is, after all, sustainable. For example, there are Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and also the Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certifications; there are some similar certifications as well. But, can you comment on how helpful are such similar certifications, and actually, how effective are these certifications to really ensure the sustainability of the palm oil plantation and its production; and, after all, are these certifications cost effective?

HV: Yeah, so the certifications that you mentioned, of course, are really big deal in the industry right now. And I will say that RSPO, which kind of came first, was really helpful in sort of highlighting that palm oil can actually be produced sustainably, and these are what you have to do to produce it sustainably, you know, for the industry. This was really helpful in getting the industry to care about changing their practices, especially the high-profile companies, the large companies, the multinationals, because, they have become so visible because of the haze problem, because of deforestation and stuff like this; they are so visible, and there’s a need for them to show the public that they are making changes and they are becoming more sustainable. So, subscribing to things like RSPO has been a very useful way for companies to show that they are doing something and also for them to have the motivation to change their practices. So for example, under RSPO, they have regulations about, you know, zero burning about plantations on peat, so, this has been very helpful in sort of moving away from the more risky activities. Of course, RSPO, by nature, is a roundtable process where their principles and criteria are improved and refined over the years, so that is a continuous improvement process. So perhaps in the future, we will have even more principles and criteria that can address those kinds of other landscape problems or challenges that I mentioned earlier. For ISPO and MSPO, these are jurisdictional standards; so, they are introduced by the countries, by Malaysia, by Indonesia, and they are in accordance with law, so they are not really going above and beyond, and they are just trying to make sure that all the players are meeting the minimum requirements. So, these are useful for like small-holders, or the medium players who may not have as much visibility, so they don’t have that consumer pressure, like the large companies who you know, need to have the RSPO because consumers demand it, but they are those, and they are also those who may have less funds to pay lots of money to an auditor, for example, to come and certify them under RSPO; so, they can have this option of subscribing to ISPO and MSPO. And, this is sort of what we call lifting the floor, while RSPO is lifting the ceiling; so they have been able to help the small and medium players to at least improve basic practices. Of course, if you compare RSPO and ISPO or MSPO, ISPO’s and MSPO’s requirements are a bit lower, and they are a bit easier because they are aimed at, like I said, lifting the ceiling; over time, hopefully, this will improve as well. So for example, for MSPO, you know, how they deal with plantations on peat, currently is still a bit vague, but hopefully it will improve over time. So, this is what I can say about these various sustainability standards. Whether they are effective, whether they are cost-effective; I think as a whole, they have been very useful in trying to maybe address this misperception that palm oil is automatically unsustainable, and also push the sector towards more sustainable practices either in leaps, or in baby steps. They are different approaches, but at least the movement has been there through all of these measures.

MCGO: So, the guidance from these certifications actually helped these companies to fulfil the sustainable palm oil production and plantations. While the responsible management practices of agricultural land actually mainly come from the culture of the company itself, as well as the small planters, we know that awareness and education are important turning pointS for the transboundary haze problem. And, we do know that your team has been diligently working on advocacy of bite-size climate education. Could you tell us more about it?

HV: Yeah, so this is sort of another project that me and my colleagues, we have worked on. We developed a website, which is Bite-Size Climate Action, and our idea for this website is to make accessible knowledge about climate change to Malaysians, so as to empower them to be able to take their own steps for climate action. So the idea was that, you know, in Malaysia, a lot of us may not be able to relate to things like polar bears, and icebergs melting, and this is what usually the conversation about climate change is all about in the international level. So we thought, let’s make it Malaysian, let’s make our case studies and our data Malaysian, and let’s make it bite-sized, so that it’s really small, and somebody can just sit down for half an hour and do one module, and, and of course, it’s free to build a better understanding about what they can do. And one of these modules is actually on forest, so we have like, on energy, on forests, on waste, on water; we have altogether, seven modules. And, and one of it, as I mentioned, is on forests, and we talk there about, you know, peatlands and what you can do about certification, how to look for certifications, how to understand labels on your products, how to be a good consumer. And, I think this is our small part in trying to educate especially the youth. And one thing that we’re really happy about is that we’ve been able to actually get a few universities to adopt it as part of their elective courses. So like my university, the Universiti Malaya, as well as my colleagues’ university, University of Nottingham—we offer it as elective courses. So, students can also take it as part of their education; they can have, you know, a line in their transcript that they have some knowledge about climate action, and hopefully, this will even open up opportunities for them to work in the climate sector in the future. So this is what we’ve been doing with Bite-Size. If people would like to check it out, it’s online—you just have to Google it.

MCGO: It’s interesting to know that it’s free, and actually, it’s suitable for the university students. So is it mainly catered for the undergraduates, or grad school too?

HV: It is evenly catered for all levels. So, we actually have a section where we talk about how to adapt the contents, all the way from primary school to university, and both for science students and non-science students as well. So of course, we try to make it very simple, very fun, very interactive, but as accessible as possible.

MCGO: Wow, that’s amazing! Perhaps, maybe one day, I could adopt that in UK as well. So apart from the transboundary haze issue, we have seen you also actively involved in climate change research work; and recently, methane emissions has been a highlight in Malaysia industry, especially with the reporting required for the UNFCCC. So what should we know about methane, and who needs to be aware of it, in Malaysia?

HV: Yeah, so methane is something that is quite new on the radar of people, recently. So, the idea being, when people talk about climate change, they always talk about CO2, right, carbon dioxide, but then we kind of forget about the other greenhouse gases, and methane is one of them; and actually, methane is much more potent than CO2. So methane is actually one of the key gases that will help, if you address methane, to address climate change in the short run, which will buy us more time to address the other greenhouse gases in the long run. So it’s really important for this sort of immediate 10 to 20 years, and Malaysia has recently signed up for the Global Methane Pledge, and along with many other countries, and what we are interested in this research that you rightly mentioned we are looking at, is to see how Malaysia can sort of adapt its commitments and its policies to ensure that we can play our part to fulfil the Global Methane Pledge. In Malaysia, the two biggest industries that are producing methane are oil and gas, and palm oil, and these two industries are our super important industries; they are our key cornerstone industries of Malaysia. So it really means a lot, you know that our main industries are also the main methane producers; we can look at it as an opportunity—we can make big action, and it can be effective in a very short time. But you know, the challenge here is actually quantification and reporting. You know, a lot of times, we don’t really know how much methane is being released, where it’s being released, and we don’t know how to quantify the actions that we are taking. So these are the kinds of things that we are looking into, the challenges that Malaysia has, and also the opportunities in terms of methane for the country. Our project is about six months in, so we are still maybe early days, but we hope to be able to make a bit more impact as time goes by.

MCGO: Looking forward to see some of the outcomes from the project. The Climate Change Advisory Panel 2023 is formed in Malaysia by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and Climate Change; and we have found that you have been recently appointed to this advisory panel. Can you explain to us what is the direction and the role played by this advisory panel, particularly by yourself as well, to move the climate change agenda forward?

HV: Yeah, so actually, this appointment was just very recent, so it’s still early days. And actually, it’s not me personally; it’s actually Universiti Malaya, which has been appointed along with a few other local universities, so USM is also on it, and UTM, as well. So, I think the role that we will play as academics, is to highlight to the ministry, you know, what kind of research we are doing in the context of climate change. So for example, me as part of this UM group, you know, one of the areas of interests will of course, be things like methane, things like peat, land use, land use change; so, this is important for us to be able to communicate to the ministry. And also, one of the main roles, as we understand it right now, of this advisory panel is to advise the ministry on what we see as priority areas for negotiations at COP28. So, as the process goes along, we hope that, you know, we will be able to really guide that process a bit; I’m not sure to what extent, you know, hopefully, the ministry will take on board what we are hoping to share.

MCGO: Yeah. It’s really good to see that there’s such an advisory panel formed; and, we’re really looking at the Malaysian government trying to take serious actions to help like to reduce the climate change effect or impact in Malaysia. Throughout the interview, we have felt a lot of passion from your interview, your personal blog, and all the sharing sessions with the general public. Can you tell us more about what inspired your interest in this topic that you have been working on for quite some time, and then still being passionate on it?

HV: Yeah, so my background is international relations, so that is, you know, my training. But I was always not so much interested in sort of the hard politics issues of, you know, geopolitics, and war and peace, this kind of stuff. So, when I was thinking about, you know, what I should focus my research on—something international, something trans-boundary, something ASEAN, haze was the thing that came to mind;  because it was a very prominent part of my childhood, and I’m sure of yours as well, you know. Malaysian children born in the 1990s and 1980s—this was something that disrupted our school. You know, if you had siblings, for example; my sibling has asthma, so there was, you know, hospital trips involved and all this. It was a big part of our collective memory, so I chose to focus on that. And as I studied this case, further, you know, it brought me to things like the palm oil, global climate politics, and it really was very clear to me that this is something extremely important to the region, not only in terms of the environment, but also in terms of the economy and the future and development and people; so, it was interconnected in so many ways, and that’s what really got me really very dedicated to learning more about this problem. And, that has been my area for the past 15-20 years, and from there, it really cultivated an interest, you know, in sort of like, scholar activism, climate change, climate action. And, I have seen many of my students coming in into international relations with similar interests in, you know, environmental politics and diplomacy, and this has also inspired me much more. And, I think this is also my role to play, to inspire students and to encourage students in this direction, as well, so I’m really happy to play this role, and also hopefully inspire others to move towards this direction in thinking about environment, not just from the side of science, but also from the side of governance, policy, and diplomacy. And yeah, I foresee that I will be doing this as long as I can.

MCGO: Thank you so much. It’s really inspiring when we listen to your sharing as well; you are so knowledgeable. And then, on the work that you have done, the books you have published, actually, it really makes a big difference for us in the ASEAN region to understand the matter of transboundary haze, not only on the physical side, but actually on the grassroot and actual questions of how do people deal with it, why does it happen, a lot of which are actually on the social side. So, I’m really glad to have Dr Helena, together with us for the interview today. Thank you so much, Dr Helena!

HV: Thank you so much, Maggie; thank you!

SG: With that, I would like to thank our guest, Dr Helena Varkkey, and our interviewer, Maggie Chel Gee Ooi, for joining us on this episode of Atmospheric Tales. Thanks to all our listeners, for tuning in; make sure to subscribe and share!