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Haze of 2015: What is the Singapore government’s agenda?

As satellites picked up just a third of the number of fires detected this year compared to the same period last year, there is hope that the region might avert a repeat of the catastrophic haze episode of 2015.

At the height of the haze which engulfed the region last year, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) sent notices to the six Indonesian paper & pulp companies to request for information under Section 9 of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA):

  • PT Rimba Hutani Mas
  • PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Wood Industries
  • PT Bumi Sriwijaya Sentosa
  • PT Wachyuni Mandira
  • PT Bumi Mekar Hijau
  • PT Bumi Andalas Permai

Additionally, paper giants Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) was issued notice pursuant to Section 10 of the THPA seeking information on its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia as well as measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to put out fires in their concessions.

In short, Section 9 of the THPA requires companies to state what was being done to put out the fires within concessions and actions taken to immediately halt fires while Section 10 gives the NEA to obtain information from any company official whom the NEA may think may be considered responsible for the running of the company.

While the notices were issued to paper and pulp companies, there were no notices issued to palm oil companies at all, despite several of which have clearly contributed to fires that have engulfed land concessions in Indonesia.

This begs a question: Why is the Singapore government targeting only paper & pulp companies when palm oil mills and plantations have been equally liable for the haze which wreaked havoc in the region last year?

The ‘clampdown’ in Indonesia against the palm oil industry has been ongoing since the haze episode of 2015.

In April 2016, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced plans to push through a moratorium on new concessions for oil palm plantations and mining activities in a bid to prevent the seasonal occurrence of haze in the region. This means no more permits or licences for palm oil and mining companies to expand in Indonesia.

The case for palm oil companies being equally liable for the haze and the urgency to solve the issue was highlighted when top palm oil producers and traders Wilmar International, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), Cargill, Asian Agri, Musim Mas and Astra Agro Lestari signed the 2014 Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) in an agreement to boost efforts to fight the annual forest fires and haze.

While the IPOP was recently dissolved to promote a more inclusive Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification, there still remains a committed effort to stop forest fires by halting the palm oil industry's expansion into forests and peat lands.

Closer to home, five firms (Unilever, Ayam Brand, Danone, Ikea, Wildlife Reserves Singapore) in Singapore have banded together to tackle deforestation and haze pollution by pledging to use certified sustainable palm oil in their products. The firms have formed the Singapore Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil, whose primary goal is to get more manufacturers and retailers to use sustainably produced palm oil.

In addition, a report completed by non-government organization Friends of the Earth’s (FOE) Up in Smoke: Failures in Wilmar’s promise to clean up the palm oil business, shows that global palm oil companies like Wilmar International, have created conditions that have allowed Indonesia’s devastating forest fires to burn out of control. Wilmar International ranks amongst the largest listed companies on the Singapore Exchange.

The report goes on to state that despite the fact of having adopted high-profile policies prohibiting burning, deforestation, and exploitation of peat lands, Wilmar appears to have flouted national laws, its own sustainability policies by developing palm oil on peat lands and taking insufficient measures to prevent forest fires in their plantations.

In the report, FOE studied three Wilmar-owned plantations in Central Kalimantan in October 2015. They are Rimba Harapan Sakti (RHS), Sarana Titian Permata (STP), and Kerry Sawit Indonesia (KSI). As indicated on page 10 of the report, “In all three plantations, NASA fire data and ground checks confirmed numerous “hotspots”, or fire locations. In some cases, researchers witnessed freshly dug peat drainage canals, recently planted peat lands burning, and destruction of High Conservation Value (HCV) land.”

This is further supported by photo surveys as show in the figures below which can be found in the report.

Figure 1: Hotspots detected by remote sensing satellites between January and November of 2015 show two large clusters of fire activity in the southern part of the RHS concessions.
Figure 1: Hotspots detected by remote sensing satellites between January and November of 2015 show two large clusters of fire activity in the southern part of the RHS concessions.
Figure 2:GPS, photo survey & NASA hotspot data in STP concession.
Figure 2:GPS, photo survey & NASA hotspot data in STP concession.
Figure 3:GPS, photo survey & NASA hotspot data in KSI concession.
Figure 3:GPS, photo survey & NASA hotspot data in KSI concession.

So why are palm oil companies like Wilmar not subject to the THPA when evidence by the FOE report indicate that they may have been contributors to the haze in 2015?

What is the Singapore government’s agenda in going after companies in Indonesia when there may be culprits right in Singapore’s own backyard?