Open Data, Citizen Action, and the Sumatra-Singapore Smog Crisis

(Updated around 5pm Lima time to add more hedging, more pessimism, more words.) 

I’ve recently learned for the first time about the “smog crisis” afflicting Singapore, Sumatra, and parts of Malaysia, and it makes for fascinating reading (and striking, shocking, pictures). The smog crisis, apparently, is a seasonal occurrence. It happens when companies cultivating oil palm on Sumatra burn old palms to clear the ground for replanting, and when they burn rainforest to clear the ground for new planting. This takes place in the dry season, when fires can burn uninterrupted. Also uninterrupted is the haze and smog that sits over Singapore and parts of Malyasia for weeks on end, with all the attendant health hazards and offense to the senses that one can imagine.

This season, the annual event has triggered a bit of a diplomatic shouting match between Indonesia and Singapore (amusingly parodied at Indolaysia, by the way) as Singapore demands that Indonesia do something, and Indonesia lays the blame at the feet of Singaporean companies, which allegedly are among the primary investors in Indonesian palm plantations. The Singaporean government has offered to make available satellite imagery to help identify the culprits, as land plots can be linked to owners (or their subcontractors) ordering the burning. This would, in theory, allow the prosecution of these companies be they Singaporean or no.

That last bit – the possibility for linking land ownership to enforcement of environmental protection laws – has been much on my mind since, and this (rather old) tweet has been bouncing around my head, especially the very first ask; though all are very worthy things to be demanding, it’s the most topical:

#opendata indeed! The discipline of bad actors in this context seems like a great use for this kind of data, and in theory it shouldn’t have to depend on government-to-government information-sharing through gritted teeth. This information ought to be shared around and used to combat destructive practices that have very real transnational impacts. But there’s more than one catch here, as may be obvious by the fact that the Indonesian government is not enforcing its own laws against setting fires and burning rainforest. If Singapore provides satellite data to the Indonesian government, it is unlikely that the Indonesian government will take concrete action at the local level, for reasons of profitability and patronage that are laid out nicely in this WSJ blog post. Sustained diplomatic flurry is unlikely to persist, and even if it did, it seems unlikely that edicts from Jakarta would take root in the hearts of the relevant local actors, who are bound together by bonds of money, political brokerage and clientelism.

What the release of this data ought to catalyze, though, is a robust citizen movement: by Singaporeans and Malaysians whose compatriots, as investors and stakeholders in Indonesian palm plantations, are presumably inflicting direct harm on their fellow citizens back home. And indeed, this ought to spark outrage (!) among Indonesians who are also suffering the effects of the smog, and among citizens concerned about the natural heritage being put ever further at risk by deliberate burning. A “naming and shaming” approach, carried out by activists across borders, and coupled to robust empirical findings on environmental damage and illegal practices on specific plots of land, could well be a tonic for the smog crisis. This is what data-based activism was made for: to help empower the afflicted and afflict the powerful, as it were. These powerful folks, of course, include powerful corporate actors, whose profits will be reduced if they have to operate within the boundaries of the laws that regulate what forest they can clear, and forbid burning. Using data on land use and ownership would undoubtedly be a hard fight. (Aside: this is why I get a bit prickly at the excitement surrounding open data for new corporate applications; this is great, but in lots of cases open data, tethered to robust citizen action, will curb corporate actions and profits, not augment them.)

Of course one can also envision a couple problems manifesting themselves further down the line, were such a movement to take hold. Oil palm, a personal bête noire of the agribusiness world, seems likely to persist as a deeply destructive crop that often is produced in league with illicit actors. This state of affairs indeed might fester still further if attention weren’t focused on it by the extra-negative externalities of periodic smog crises. Still, public registries of land data, coupled with registries of satellite imagery and their public release on a regular basis, could be grist to the mill of naming and shaming the most destructive companies, and this function by crusading citizens and journalists might well be one to which landholding data would continue to be well-suited. And as debates over landholding, the environment, and climate change continue to heat up in a variety of contexts, opening data and increasing transparency has a key role to play – in resolving smog crises, and well beyond.

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