The slash-and-burn haze that blanketed areas of Sumatra and also shrouded Singapore and western Malaysia last month is spreading again. Singapore is being spared for the moment, but, in Malaysia, areas of Melaka, Banting in Selangor state, Muar and Larkin Lama in Johar, Port Klang, and the Cheras area of Kuala Lumpur all recorded unhealthy pollution levels today.
The noxious smog originates from fires in Sumatra’s Riau province, and it’s estimated that half of the blazes have started on oil palm and pulpwood plantations.
According to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Specialised Meteorological Centre, which uses satellite data from the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were 261 hotpots in Sumatra yesterday.
The Pollutant Standards Index reading was 619 in Rumbai, north of Riau’s provincial capital Pekanbaru today. Visibility went down to 70 metres at Pekanbaru Airport.
When the wind is unfavourable, the haze from the fires spreads to neighbouring countries, and even extended to Thailand in June.
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.
An Air Pollutant Index reading of 301 or more is considered to be hazardous, 201 to 300 is very unhealthy, 101 to 200 is unhealthy, 51 to 100 is moderate, and zero to 50 is rated as good. A sustained reading of above 400 can be life-threatening to ill and elderly people.
In June, air pollution levels hit 401 in Singapore and 746 in Muar in Malaysia’s Johar state. States of emergency were declared in Muar and the nearby town of Ledang, and in the worst affected areas of Riau. Hospitals in Riau recorded increases in cases of asthma and lung, eye and skin problems and Malaysians also reported breathing problems, headaches, eye problems, and skin rashes.
Indonesians on Sumatra and their neighbours in Malaysia and Singapore have suffered the pollution from the annual slash-and-burn clearance for years, and no concrete action has been taken to remedy the situation.
Indonesia is the only member of ASEAN that has not ratified the association’s Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed in 2002. It said recently that it hoped to sign the pact by early 2014.
Relations between Indonesia and its neighbours are fraught over the issue. The comments of one Indonesian minister, who called the Singaporeans childish for being upset about the haze, were tactless to say the least.
In June, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, apologised to Malaysians and Singaporeans for the haze and said his country was fully responsible for overcoming the problem.
Palm oil and pulp and paper companies have rejected accusations that 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.
Wilmar International is listed in Singapore, and Sime Darby is based in Malaysia.
Many of the fires in Sumatra are in carbon-rich peat forests. 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.
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.
Fires on peatland are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and it can take hours to put out a blaze on just one hectare of land.
When this year’s haze spread in June, the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) said initial data showed that about half of the fires were burning inside oil palm and pulpwood plantations.
Greenpeace International says analysis of NASA hotspots in Sumatra from June 17 to 30 shows there were fires in palm oil concessions that are owned by companies belonging to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These companies include Indonesia-based Asian Agri and Wilmar International, Greenpeace says.
“The RSPO decided to focus its own investigations on just five of its members, and cleared four of them, but Greenpeace’s evidence points to a far wider problem for the sector, which neither the RSPO nor the companies implicated are owning up to,” said Maitar.
According to Greenpeace, the five companies who have been named in media reports – Sime Darby, Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), Golden-Agri Resources (GAR), Tabung Haji Plantations, and PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa – were not the companies with the most fire hotspots.
“The RSPO is more interested in safeguarding its public image than in getting to the bottom of the haze problem, Maitar said. “Rather than claiming the innocence of members who’ve been reported in the media, the RSPO needs to address the real problem – decades of peatland drainage and destruction, which is labelled as sustainable under RSPO rules and has laid the foundation for these disastrous fires,” Maitar said.
The RSPO says it is not simply seeking to clear its member companies from alleged involvement in the fires in Sumatra. It accuses Greenpeace of “misplacing its objectivity” in its analysis of the fires, and says it should focus more on the fires in pulp and paper plantations. It accused Greenpeace of using “media sensationalism” to address the fires issue.
“It has been reported that the palm oil sector has contributed to 20 percent of the recent fires in Sumatra,” the RSPO said in a statement on July 15. “Out of the many companies implicated, less than a handful of these companies are RSPO members – which the RSPO views as serious and is fully committed to investigating and taking appropriate action if verified.
“However, at its peak there were 9,000 hotspots identified and 80 percent of the fires are occurring outside of palm oil plantations. The pulp and paper plantations have been identified as having significantly more fires than the oil palm plantations.”
Greenpeace has documented fires in the concession of PT Raja Garuda Mas Sejati, a subsidiary of the prominent Singapore-based RSPO member Asian Agri, one of the companies cleared by the RSPO.
“NASA data reveals that there were 20 hotspots on peatland within the PT Raja Garuda Mas Sejati concession between June 17 and 28,” Maitar said.
Greenpeace also says its analysis shows that PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, a company that has still failed to provide the RSPO with concession maps that it can examine, had nearly 100 hotspots detected on peatland in its concession between June 19 and 26.
“The data reveals that PT Bumireksa Nusasejati, part of the Sime Darby group, also had more than 20 hotspots on peatland within its concessions between June 17 and 28,” Maitar added.
“The RSPO was established nearly a decade ago in the wake of the 1997 forest fires, yet to date, it has failed to tackle its members’ role in creating the conditions that have led to this disaster. It hasn’t held companies accountable for the impact of their operations. It’s time for individual palm oil companies to step up and set the bar higher than the RSPO.”
The RSPO accepts that there were 74 hotspots within PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa’s concession in the period between June 1 and 26 and that these hotspots “either lasted consistently for several days or appeared on a recurring basis”.
It said it would now have to determine whether the origin of the fires was “a result of systemic failure in managing environmental related risks or otherwise” and urged PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa “to act with urgency in addressing the fires that may still be active within their concession”. The matter would go to the RSPO Complaints Panel, the Roundtable said.
The RSPO says its members have been “exemplary in managing the fire and the haze situation”. Greenpeace says the Roundtable has not made public all the information it has about the fires and should be a model to its members in terms of transparency.
Greenpeace is calling on corporations to stop illegal burning, take responsibility for their entire supply chains, and commit to zero deforestation and a full ban on peatland development.
Most blame for the fires in Riau is being levelled at industrial plantation owners and subsistence farmers, but scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre, who have been studying land conversion in Sumatra, say they have identified a third group of land investors – local mid-level entrepreneurs – who operate outside the government system.
The ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins, to which the agroforestry centre belongs, has issued a comprehensive analysis of the June hotspots and haze.
In reference to the mid-level entrepreneurs, the briefing states: “These people acquire land under informal rules at village level, effectively sidestepping the government land-use system.
“They bring in their own labour to clear the land for oil palm, regardless of the land’s formal government status and in the absence of any permits to do so.
“Policies and policing need to be adjusted to deal with the newly identified group if the annual fires and subsequent haze are to be reduced. Holding plantation companies accountable for the fires within their boundaries would help reduce the problem but not extinguish it.”
According to the ASB partnership, about half of the fire hotspots in Riau are on land with legal permits for large-scale industrial timber, oil palm, and logging operations. “The rest occur as part of illegal activities, in areas that have been slated for conservation or non-production.”
The June hotspots were concentrated on the deepest peat soil, in areas that were already deforested before 2010, the briefing adds.
“These hot spots are mostly concentrated in three districts within Riau province. Some neighbouring districts with similar conditions have so far avoided the problem this year, which suggests that lessons might be learnt about governance.”
In its latest analysis of the fires, the WRI states that, on a per-hectare basis, there are more than three times as many fire alerts inside logging, pulpwood, and oil palm concessions than outside concessions.
“The density of fire alerts inside pulpwood concessions is four times higher than the density of fire alerts outside of concession areas. Furthermore, a large number of these concessions are linked with the Sinar Mas (which includes Asia Pulp and Paper) and Raja Garuda Mas (which includes Asia Pacific Resources International) groups of companies.
“The density of fire alerts inside oil palm concessions is three times higher than the density of fire alerts outside of concession areas.”
The WRI also points to “large discrepancies between concession maps provided by companies and those housed in official Indonesian government databases”.
It says the record levels of smog experienced in Singapore in June were the result of unusual wind patterns, not unusually high levels of forest fires. “We can see that, while a large number of fire alerts occurred that month, there have been two worse periods in the past nine years, in 2005 and 2006.
“Forest fires in Indonesia are part of a long-standing, endemic problem – one that needs a coordinated and comprehensive solution if fire and haze risks are to be reduced.”
It was highly likely that severe burning seasons would be repeated, the WRI said. “If that happens, Indonesia and its neighbours will again suffer very serious levels of air pollution known to be extremely damaging to human health, and to the country’s vital forest ecosystems.”
ASEAN ministers met in Kuala Lumpur on July 17 for the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution. In an editorial entitled “Hazy mentality impedes joint action”, the Singapore-based newspaper The Straits Times pointed out that ASEAN has had a haze masterplan since the 1980s.
“Agreement exists on many technical plans and operational strategies – for prevention, monitoring and mitigation. Yet not enough is being done and little was achieved by the ASEAN sub-regional ministerial meeting.
“No launch date was set yet for a monitoring system (agreed on at the previous ministerial meeting). Only government-to-government sharing of maps was proposed (subject to ASEAN leaders’ approval) to help spot violators. And there was no resolve as a community to get the sole laggard, Indonesia, to commit to ratifying the 2002 ASEAN transboundary haze agreement.”
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.
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.
In March 2012, at least 2,800 hectares of the environmentally precious Tripa peat forest in northern Sumatra were devastated by fires, and most of the hotspots occurred on the deepest peat. The illegal burning is being carried out in an area that should be off-limits for conversion as it lies within the Leuser Ecosystem.
The area is home to the highest-density population of Sumatran orangutans in the world, but it is estimated that at least one hundred of them have perished in forest clearing and peat burning.