As fires rage on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and the resulting haze continues to blanket large areas of Malaysia, Greenpeace International has called on palm oil and pulp and paper companies in Indonesia “to accept responsibility for their role in the country’s forest fires rather than hiding behind zero-burn policies or trying to imply that local communities are to blame”.
Palm oil and pulp and paper companies have rejected accusations they are responsible for fires in or around their concessions in Riau province, but Greenpeace International says the current problems are the result of decades of forest destruction in Sumatra.
“Palm oil giants such as Sime Darby and Wilmar International can’t just wash their hands of responsibility for these crimes and hide behind their zero-burning policies,” said Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace International.
“These types of companies created the conditions for this disaster by draining and clearing peatland. When peatland is cleared and drained of water for plantations it becomes prone to fire. Any fire, either deliberate, accidental or from small-scale clearing, can become an environmental disaster.”
Greenpeace recently released an analysis of NASA hotspot data in Sumatra for June 11-21 that showed hundreds of fire hotspots (major fires detectable by satellite) in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies.
States of emergency have been declared in the worst-affected areas in Sumatra and in the Malaysian towns of Muar and Ledang in Johor state, where, on Sunday, the Air Pollutant Index level reached 746, the highest recorded in Malaysia in 16 years. The level has since dropped to 125, which is still regarded as “unhealthy”.
In Singapore last Friday, the Pollutant Standards Index hit 401 – the highest in Singapore’s history. The level has since dropped to “moderate”.
In Riau, the pollutant index reached 400 last Friday. Local hospitals recorded increases in cases of asthma and lung, eye and skin problems.
Malaysians are also reporting breathing problems, headaches, eye problems, and skin rashes.
A pollutant index reading above 300 is defined as hazardous and Singapore government guidelines say a reading of above 400 sustained for 24 hours may be life-threatening to ill and elderly people.
Schools in the affected areas of Malaysia were closed today, but are expected to open tomorrow in all parts of the country except Port Klang, where a pollution level of 319 was recorded this evening.
Port Dickson had the highest pollutant level today: 335 in the morning, dropping to 193 in the evening. The levels in the capital Kuala Lumpur were lower, but still “unhealthy”.
The UNESCO World Heritage town of Melaka has been blanketed in smog for five days. In one area of Melaka state the pollutant index level reached 443 on Sunday.
Indonesia has tried seeding clouds in an attempt to create rain to extinguish the blazes, but with very little success. Fire-fighters are overwhelmed with the task they face and have been battling the blazes for two weeks. Fires on peatland are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and it can take hours to put out a blaze on just one hectare of land.
The Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today apologised to Malaysians and Singaporeans for the haze.
“As President, I apologise for what has happened and hope for understanding from our friends in Singapore and Malaysia,” he said in a televised press conference. “Indonesia had no intention to cause this.”
Yudhoyono said Indonesia was fully responsible for overcoming the problem.
He also told off Indonesian government officials for mentioning the names of plantation companies believed to have started the fires, and said the names shouldn’t have been divulged as it was not yet known who was to blame.
Eight companies have been specifically cited by Indonesian ministers, including Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL) and the multinational company Sinar Mas. A company linked to Malaysia-based Sime Darby has also been accused of having fires on its plantation.
The news agency Reuters quoted Indonesian senior presidential aide Kuntoro Mangkusubroto as saying: “The majority of hotspots in Riau province are inside APRIL and Sinar Mas concessions.”
APRIL denied causing any of the current fires and said it had a strict no-burn policy. The company said on Saturday: “There are currently three fires in our concessions, covering approximately 20 hectares. These fires have been contained and our fire-fighters are working to extinguish them.”
The company said that all the fires it had detected started outside of its concession areas and spread into its concessions.
The Singapore-listed palm oil producer Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) and its Indonesian subsidiary PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART) say there are currently no hotspots or fires in GAR or SMART concessions and that the companies are firmly committed to a zero-burning policy.
GAR is part of the Sinar Mas conglomerate, but is run separately.
Asia Pulp and Paper and the multinational palm oil producer Sime Darby also denied accusations that there are fires in their operating areas.
APP said: “We do not practice, and highly condemn the slash-and-burn activity for its detrimental impact to the environment and the rainforests.
“Our fire fighting crews, together with community members, have been working hard to control the fires in our suppliers’ concessions. The task is very complex because of the combination between strong wind, high temperature and the fact that the fire has reached peat land.”
To identify the companies most associated with fire hotspots, Greenpeace overlaid NASA hotspot data with two sets of concession maps. “The lack of government transparency makes it very hard for independent monitoring; concession maps are incomplete, data is lacking, and we clearly have weak enforcement of laws,” said Greenpeace Southeast Asia forest campaigner, Yuyun Indradi.
Greenpeace says half of the fire hotspots detected from June 11-18 are in areas that should be protected by Indonesia’s forest moratorium.
“We call on the Indonesian government to review existing concessions, increase transparency in the way licences are granted, establish a credible database of low carbon land as an alternative to the current destruction of high carbon land, and undertake clear spatial and land use planning.”
The US-based World Resources Institute said initial data showed that half of the fires are burning on timber and oil palm plantations.
“Most of the NASA fire alerts are located within the province of Riau, and chiefly within the boundaries of timber plantation and oil palm concessions. About 52 percent of the total fires occur within these concession areas. Far fewer fire alerts are located in protected forests or in concessions for selective logging.
“According to available official data, companies that are part of the Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas groups own the concessions licences where the largest numbers of fire alerts are found. Together, these two groups account for more than 50 percent of the fires across all concessions.”
There are nine Sinar Mas timber plantations on the WRI’s June 12-20 fire alert list.
“It will be important for government agencies to conduct further investigations and verify the location and direct causes of the fires. Satellite data can show the location of the fires, but does not indicate how they started or spread. It is also in the public interest to have up-to-date and publicly available concession data.”
According to the WRI, there are hotspots within the concession of PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation, a subsidiary of PT Minamas Gemilang and a Sime Darby company.
Sime Darby says TMP is unable to exert control over activities beyond its operating areas and where land is occupied by others. It says 2,474 hectares of TMP’s 13,836-hectare concession are occupied by local communities.
The WRI also cites the Singapore-listed palm oil producer Wilmar International as one of the companies with hotspots on its land.
Land burning by oil palm plantation owners was the main cause of the massive fires that wreaked ecological, economic, and health havoc in Indonesia and Malaysia in 1997-1998.
In October and November 1997, the haze from fires in Indonesia spread as far the Philippines to the north, Sri Lanka to the west, and northern Australia to the south. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, there was a pollution index reading of 860.
Fires burned thousands of squares miles of rainforest, plantations, conversion forest, and scrubland in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Papua New Guinea, Bali, Lombok, and Sarawak.
According to government statistics, 750,000 hectares were affected, but environmental organisations said at least 1,714,000 hectares went up in smoke. By mid-1998 the estimate had climbed beyond five million hectares. It was estimated that, in 1998, between 180,280 and 284,000 hectares burned in East Kalimantan alone.
At least 2,800 hectares of the environmentally precious Tripa peat forest in northern Sumatra were devastated by fires in March 2012, and most of the hotspots occurred on the deepest peat.
In just five days, there were no less than 87 fire hotspots in three of the oil palm concessions within Tripa (those owned by PT Kallista Alam, PT SPS 2, and PT Dua Perkasa Alam).
This was the highest intensity of fire hotspots recorded in a 5-day period in Tripa since satellite monitoring of Indonesia’s fire hot spots began in late 2000.
Greenpeace has called on palm oil producers to urgently extinguish fires in their concessions, immediately stop the drainage and development on peat and natural forests and ensure palm oil in their supply chains is produced without forest destruction.
“The government of Indonesia must also strengthen the moratorium on forest clearance and fully protect all peatland.”
Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but their destruction is causing 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.
According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion.
“Under Indonesian law, development on peat up to three meters deep is still legal, and also the palm oil industry’s certification system, the RSPO, does not ban all development on peat,” said Bustar Maitar.
Indonesia is now the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, following behind the U.S. and China.
No less than 10 million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.
Indonesia is the only member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that has not ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed in 2002.
Malaysia is proposing that the sub-regional ministerial steering committee meeting on transboundary haze pollution that is scheduled for August should be brought forward.
The first arrests in relation to the current fires are reported to have been of two Indonesian farmers accused of illegally starting fires to clear their own land.