Fires from Slash & Burn Threaten Lives & Livelihood

Fires from Slash & Burn Threaten Lives & Livelihood

The annual air pollution hazard – called simply “haze” by most – has once again descended on the island of Singapore and parts of Malaysia. A result of the slash-and-burn technique used for land clearing on neighbouring islands in Indonesia, the all-pervasive smoke has broken the previous high for dangerously unhealthy air recorded in 1997, leading to finger-pointing by the people and governments of Singapore and Indonesia. How bad will it get before companies and Governments take real action against the culprits? Read more

Dangerously high haze levels in Singapore limit outdoor activity.

Julie Noce reports for AFP News (19 June 2013):

Smog from forest fires in Indonesia stayed at unhealthy levels in Singapore on Tuesday as the two neighbours blamed each other for the seasonal problem.

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index stood at 115 as offices opened — still above the “unhealthy” threshold of 100 but down from the peak reached late Monday when the entire island was shrouded by a smoky haze.

Most commuters walked in bright sunshine on Tuesday without covering their faces despite the lingering smell of burnt wood in the business district.

The Ministry of Manpower has urged employers to issue protective masks to staff with heart and respiratory problems, and those working outdoors. The elderly and children have also been told to reduce strenuous outdoor activity.

The pollutant index soared to a peak of 155 late Monday, the highest since Southeast Asia’s prolonged haze crisis in 1997-1998, but eased off overnight.

On Monday, Singapore urged Indonesia to take “urgent measures” to tackle its forest fires as smoke blown from Sumatra island choked the densely populated city-state as well as parts of Malaysia.

But the Indonesian forestry ministry said firefighters were already tackling the blazes and water-dropping aircraft would be deployed if local governors made a request.

A ministry official, Hadi Daryanto, also attempted to shift some of the blame onto Malaysia and Singapore, saying their palm oil companies that had invested in Indonesia were also responsible.

“The slash-and-burn technique being used is the cheapest land-clearing method and it is not only used by local farmers, but also employees of palm oil investors including Singaporean and Malaysian companies,” he said.

“We hope the governments of Malaysia and Singapore will tell their investors to adopt proper measures so we can solve this problem together.”

But Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s minister for environment and water resources, kept up the pressure on Indonesia.

In remarks carried Tuesday by Singapore media, he said “commercial interests in Indonesia have been allowed to override environmental concerns.”

He repeated an offer of help from Singapore, which has a modern military and civil defence system including firefighters.

The Singapore military came to Indonesia’s aid after Aceh province was devastated by a tsunami in 2004.


Not act of nature but man-made: NEA chief


By Zakir Hussain Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta Straits Times (21 June 2013):

THE haze triggered by fires raging across Sumatra is not an act of nature, but man-made, National Environment Agency (NEA) chief executive Andrew Tan said yesterday.

Hence, Indonesia needs to take more decisive action against errant companies, Mr Tan told The Times, echoing remarks he made at a two-hour meeting held here yesterday afternoon between Singapore officials and their Indonesian counterparts.

Singapore, he added, could work together with Indonesia to map its satellite images of hot spots onto land concession maps of affected areas in Sumatra, and track those responsible.

“I urged Indonesia to take more decisive action, because the situation is likely to deteriorate in the next few weeks and at the onset of the dry season if no further efforts are taken,” he said.

“We registered that given the weather conditions, the burning actions are man-made and therefore can and should be averted. We pressed them to take our concerns seriously.”

The emergency meeting at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry followed telephone calls between foreign and environment ministers from both countries on Tuesday. In addition, Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishman is due to travel to Jakarta today.

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit a record high of 371 at 1pm yesterday, an hour before the Jakarta meeting began.

“On Singapore’s part, we conveyed the very serious concerns that Singaporeans have over the deteriorating haze situation… how this was unprecedented and (how) PSI levels deteriorated very quickly,” Mr Tan said.

“(We) are now at a stage where air quality is at hazardous levels. So we can’t take this lightly.”

Singapore also proposed to bring forward a sub-regional ministerial meeting on transboundary haze set for August, he said.

Indonesian officials were asked to share if they have information about Singapore companies involved in illegal burning so that Singapore can act as well.

“We had a frank discussion with host agencies,” Mr Tan said.

The Singapore side was updated regarding a ministerial meeting yesterday morning that saw a national task force on haze being set up. Measures agreed on included stepping up firefighting efforts and enforcement against errant firms. Immediate steps included cloud-seeding to induce rain.

The task force, chaired by Coordinating Welfare Minister Agung Laksono, includes the ministers for foreign affairs, the environment and forestry. Mr Agung told reporters that cloud-seeding would take place as soon as it was feasible, starting today. The salt is ready, the planes are in place, he said, but there must be clouds.

He noted that the burning was not always above ground. Some 850ha of land had been ablaze in recent days, and fires in some 650ha had been put out, he said.

The government is investigating which companies are responsible and will take action against those found culpable. “But there must be a process,” he said.


Why naming and shaming might help fight haze

By Jessica Cheam in The Straits Times (21 June 2013):

Singapore, the clean and green garden city, turned hazy and grey this week when winds blew in the thick smog caused by more than 100 hot spots over Sumatra.

The haze that enveloped the Republic was the worst in history, hitting a record of 371 on the Pollutant Standards Index yesterday, curtailing outdoor activities across the island.

Indonesian officials say the huge tracts of land around the coastal city of Dumai – located on the coast of the Strait of Malacca that faces Singapore – have caught fire due to the early hot season.

Farmers are also using their ‘slash and burn’ methods to clear plantations – an established practice for many smallholder farmers who regard it was the easiest, low-cost method although with exacting environment and public health costs.

Such a phenomenon is not rare in this part of the world, which has been plagued by transboundary haze pollution for many years, although the seriousness of the haze varies from year to year.

As the haze worsened, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan had tougher words for Indonesia. “No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans’ health and wellbeing,” he wrote on Wednesday night.

The Asean bloc has tried to address the haze pollution for more than a decade with limited success. Each year, its ministers meet to discuss the issue and pledge cooperation on tackling it. There has been some progress such as in Jambi province, where Singapore and Indonesia worked together to implement steps to address forest fires.

But notably, the 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which legally binds countries to prevent and control haze, has not been ratified by Indonesia, rendering it toothless because most of the burning originates there.

Indonesia has taken umbrage at suggestions it has not done enough, but over the years, it has been relatively ineffective in enforcing and prosecuting those who start the forest fires. Short of engaging ministers in more talk, Singapore and Malaysia  have their hands tied as the burning is not in their territory.

Satellite technology pin-pointing the exact locations are also useful, but without being able to match the coordinates to land owners, culprits remain unexposed.

So, what options do we have?

If the authorities are unable to make progress, then commercial and public pressure could be the key to addressing the problem.
Singapore has now called on Indonesia to publish the concession maps that will show which companies own the burning spots. Indonesia has suggested that it was Malaysian and Singaporean palm oil companies behind the hot spots, and has since said it will check and “then we will coordinate”.

This is a long overdue move, and governments, non-governmental organisations and wider society must put pressure for such information to be made transparent.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan hinted as much when he said: “I am sure consumers will know what to do.”

In other words, the power to stop this lies with us.

When I say “us”, I mean not just Singaporean consumers – as we are only a small country with limited buying power – but the wider international community, because the haze pollution knows no borders.
We might suffer most of it due to our proximity to the burning, but the larger concern is the huge amounts of carbon emissions the burning is adding to the atmosphere, worsening climate change and destroying biodiversity.

As educated consumers, we have the capacity to demand that companies conduct their business responsibly and without detriment to the wider public. This includes ensuring that their entire supply chain is operated in a sustainable manner.

To some extent, this has already been demonstrated in campaigns by environmental groups against major palm oil players. A recent Greenpeace campaign targeting consumer giants like Unilever and Nestle, for example, has led to these companies dropping Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) as a supplier.

The storm of public criticism had forced Unilever and Nestle to relook their supply chains and in turn, forced players like GAR to clean up their act. GAR has since engaged external parties such as the Forest Trust to look into their operations, and Unilever has also resumed buying from it.

It is unrealistic to expect these companies to clean up overnight, but at least there is a process of improvement.

Locals reports have since quoted Wilmar International as saying that they have a zero-burning policy, although it “cannot prevent local practices of slash-and-burn for agricultural and other purposes”.

This is simply not good enough.

We need to apply more public pressure to ensure these companies are responsible for what happens on their land. Saying it cannot be controlled just shows that you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

In the current era of technological innovations and crowd-sourcing, it is also difficult to withhold information from the public.
It is then up to us to demand these firms to do the right thing. After all, we are the shareholders who buy their stock and the consumers who buy their products.

Companies can no longer escape the public eye of scrutiny and think they can get away with anything less than responsible action.

The business practices of all palm oil companies who own forest land should be examined by the wider international community and we should mobilise people power to launch even more campaigns that will force companies to change the way they do things. Singapore is capable of that – witness the recent protests against the population white paper and the change in website licensing.

Sure, the issue is far more complex and involves challenges such as the size of forest land involved, and the ability to reach and educate smallholder farmers. These farmers are also trapped by the lack of alternative economic options, and there is an obvious absence of local law enforcement.

But that is precisely why action has to be taken sooner rather than later.

This is the only way to make progress on this problem. Sooner or later, the rain will wash away the smog and the skies will clear again. But even though we may no longer see it, the haze problem still exists.

And it will never go away until we take the necessary steps to address it.

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