Haze in Singapore and Malaysia Underscores Need for Action Against Irresponsible Companies



Posted on 26 June 2013  | 
With Singapore and parts of Malaysia only just recovering from a thick haze originating from fires in nearby Sumatra, one of the region’s most long-lasting and seemingly intractable environmental problems has sprung back into the spotlight. But with the blame game in full swing, the focus needs to stay firmly on the facts and addressing once and for all the root causes of this recurrent disaster: reckless agricultural expansion (including for oil palm) and its impacts on dwindling forests.

In mid-June, air quality levels in Singapore deteriorated to the worst levels ever recorded on the island, while local airports in Indonesia and some schools in Malaysia had to close. Singapore’s main index for air pollution hit a measurement of 401—classified as hazardous and with the potential to aggravate respiratory ailments.

Where the fires are burning

According to Eyes of the Forest (a coalition of NGOs in Riau founded by WWF-Indonesia), as of the end of June 2013 there were over 9,000 fire hostpots in Sumatra. Thirty percent of the hotspots were in pulp and paper concessions and 9% in large-scale palm oil concessions (see interactive map).

Fires have also been reported in Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau Province (450 hotspots), one of the last havens for endangered Sumatran elephants and critically endangered Sumatran tigers.

On June 26th, WWF-Indonesia launched the report Palming Off a National Park: Tracking Illegal Palm Oil Fruit in Riau, which draws attention to the issue of palm oil plantations that purchase FFB from land that was illegally cleared in the Tesso Nilo National Park: DOWNLOAD







Need for stronger government control and industry monitoring

The situation underscores that deforestation is a global problem and that the slash and burn clearing of lands for palm oil and paper affects us all, even in urban centres. This calls for all parties to play a part in the solution.

“Governments must take strong, decisive action to work even closer together with one another and with agencies who work on the ground to address the issue collectively. It is time to take a tough stand with culpable corporations who have little regard for the damage caused to the well-being of the people, environment and the rich biodiversity including endangered species,” says Ms Elaine Tan, CEO, WWF-Singapore.

Just as importantly, the industry needs to start taking control of all the FFB they are sourcing, even coming from independent smallholders, and make sure that it has been produced sustainably and without the use of fire. Authorities in Indonesia also need to take control of land use planning and how smallholders use fire in uncontrolled ways.

RSPO assessing members possibly implicated in fires

In a statement, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) announced that it is seeking to identify all members that have been indicated as implicated. So far, these include PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, Tabung Haji Plantations, Sinar Mas, Kuala Lumpur Kepong, and Sime Darby. Together, Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas (a timber company) reportedly accounted for more than 50% of the fires across all concessions, according to the World Resources Institute. Already, 3 firms linked to the fires have seen their share prices decline since the haze crisis began.

By virtue of being a RSPO member, these companies must apply a policy across all their operations that strictly prohibit open burning and have standard operating procedures to manage fire risks as per the requirement of the RSPO Principles & Criteria.

WWF helped to set up the RSPO as a direct response to forest fire and haze in the late 1990s. The palm oil industry has pioneered land clearance without burning and RSPO certified companies can ensure that the palm oil on their own plantations are produced without fire. 

“However the same companies may be purchasing palm oil fruit or oil from smaller companies and smallholders that are not following RSPO guidelines on fire," says Adam Harrison, WWF International's lead on palm oil. "WWF asks that all palm oil producers take necessary measures to ensure that not only their own plantations are certified, but also that that the fruit and oil sourced from third party suppliers has not been produced at the expense of nature or people."

BLOG: WWF's Adam Harrison reports from Malaysia

According to Anwar Purwoto, Forest Program Director of WWF-Indonesia, "WWF-Indonesia is ready to support the Government of Indonesia to take necessary measures in preventing further haze and land/forest fires from happening again in future, such as monitoring the hotspots for law enforcement purpose and developing community-based fire mitigation”.

What needs to happen next

At time of writing, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologized for the haze, a commendable move. But apologies are not enough—now is the time to step up monitoring on the ground in Sumatra, stop drainage and conversion of peatlands which turns these ecosystems into tinderboxes, and to hold farmers and companies accountable for the fires they have created—whether they are RSPO members or not.

RSPO, Straits Times, WWF, Guardian, World Resources Institute, Mongabay

Slash and burn in Tesso Nilo, Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia
Slash and burn in Tesso Nilo, Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia
© WWF-Canon / WWF-Germany/A. Vedder Enlarge
Haze from Sumatran palm oil plantation fire
© Adam Harrison Enlarge

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