The Indonesian and Singaporean governments are taking action against companies accused of being responsible for forest fires that are still raging on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, causing fatalities and untold damage to people’s health.
States of emergency have been declared in several provinces in Indonesia and choking pollution has also blanketed large areas of Malaysia and Singapore for weeks.
The Indonesian government has revoked the licence of a timber supplier and suspended the operations of three palm oil companies suspected of illegal burning.
The plantation companies with suspended permits have been named as PT Langgam Inti Hibrindo, PT Tempirai Palm Resources, and PT Waringin Agro Jaya. The forestry licence revoked by Indonesia was held by PT Hutani Sola Lestari.
Langgam Inti Hibrindo issued a statement to say it was not responsible and will cooperate with the authorities.
The Singaporean government says the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA), which was passed in August last year, has been breached four times this month.
From investigations so far, there were indications that fires on lands held via concessions granted to four Indonesian companies may have contributed to the haze, the government said in a statement.
The companies are: PT Rimba Hutani Mas, PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Wood Industries, PT Bumi Sriwijaya Sentosa, and PT Wachyuni Mandira.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) has sent preventive measure notices to the four companies, requesting them to take several actions, including deploying fire-fighting personnel to extinguish or prevent the spread of any fire on land owned or occupied by them.
The companies are also asked to discontinue, or not commence, any burning activities on such land and to submit to the NEA any plan of action to extinguish any fire on such land or to prevent its recurrence.
The Indonesian company Asia Pulp and Paper, which is based in Jakarta, but has an office in Singapore, has meanwhile been served a notice pursuant to Section 10 of the THPA, requesting information about its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia and about measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to extinguish fires in their concessions.
Under the THPA, haze pollution is said to have occurred if the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Singapore remains at 101 or higher for 24 continuous hours or longer. The Act makes it an offence for any entity to cause or contribute to haze pollution in Singapore.
Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources,Vivian Balakrishnan, said the latest breach of the haze Act began on September 22, was still ongoing, and had lasted for 72 hours.
The first breach is alleged to have started on September 10, and to have lasted for 41 hours. The second is alleged to have begun on September 12 and to have lasted for 109 hours. The third breach is alleged to have begun on September 19 and to have lasted for 33 hours.
Today, all primary and secondary schools in Singapore were closed when pollution reached hazardous levels yesterday. The three-hour PSI recorded 341 at 5 a.m. today.
A pollutant index reading of between 0 and 50 is categorised as good, 51 to 100 is moderate, 101 to 200 is considered to be unhealthy, 201 to 300 is very unhealthy, and above 300 is considered to be hazardous.
The fast-food chains McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut all suspended their delivery services in Singapore because of the haze, and the Singapore Sports Hub suspended all strenuous activities at its outdoor venues until further notice.
Pollution levels have decreased in many parts of peninsular Malaysia, but the Air Pollutants Index (API) hit 172 in the Pasir Gudang area of Johar at 6 p.m. this evening. Other areas of Johor were also in the “unhealthy” range, as were several areas in the states of Terengganu and Pahang.
Balakrishnan said the haze was not a natural disaster, but a man-made problem, which could not be tolerated and had had a major impact on the health, society, and economy of the region.
While Indonesia had taken some positive measures to combat the haze, more needed to be done, he said.
The last time the Singaporean government had to close schools was during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Balakrishnan said.
Under the THPA, Singapore can impose a fine of 100,000 Singapore dollars (about 70,000 US$) for each day or part of a day that a local or foreign company contributes to unhealthy levels of haze pollution in the city.
The maximum total fine imposed on any one company must not exceed 2 million Singapore dollars (about 1.4 million US$).
Indonesia clamps down on alleged offenders
In Indonesia, a total of 27 companies are reportedly being investigated in connection with the fires and 140 individuals are reportedly being questioned.
According to news reports, Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry has ordered four companies to suspend operations because they have allegedly caused forest fires.
Three of the companies, which have been told to halt their operations, are palm oil companies. They have been named as Tempirai Palm Resources and Waringin Agro Jaya, both based in South Sumatra, and Langgam Inti Hibrindo in Riau province.
Hutani Sola Lestari, a wood pulp company based in Riau, is reported to have had its licence revoked.
All the four companies are Indonesian-owned. A Singapore-listed firm is also reported to be under investigation.
There were earlier reports that the Indonesian government was investigating 276 business entities suspected to have caused forest fires. The Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, was quoted as saying most of the entities were palm oil companies whose permits were issued by district heads.
The Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) says that Singapore and Malaysia need to share the responsibility for the fires and the resultant haze with Indonesia as they share in the profits made from the palm oil industry.
Two of the worst-hit areas are Central and East Kalimantan. At Samboja Lestari in East Kalimantan, an orangutan rescue organisation, the BOS Foundation, lost 200 hectares of land, including an arboretum where it has been planting trees for about a decade.
There were serious fears yesterday that the orangutan reintroduction centre would be damaged, but the main blaze has now been brought under control.
After a BOS Foundation team managed to extinguish the fire at about 1 a.m. yesterday, it reignited at about 10 a.m. The foundation launched an urgent appeal for fire-fighting help.
In a post on Facebook, the foundation said the fire had spread further and had come dangerously close to the newly built orangutan enclosures. “Fortunately, the enclosures are still empty at the moment. Fire has also come near our helipad, which is located very close to our office, and is now threatening to engulf our treasured arboretum.”
The blaze was particularly difficult to extinguish because wild ferns that grow in many parts of Samboja Lestari’s forest were burning. “Just like peat forests; once burned, dry ferns can easily reignite fire. We desperately need professional fire-fighters and serious fire-fighting equipment to combat the fire at this stage,” the foundation said.
Fire-fighting teams arrived yesterday evening and managed to put out the main blaze that was threatening the foundation’s buildings.
“The blaze was finally put out at around midnight,” the foundation said today. “Today, we are finally able to control the fire. However, some fire spots still exist and are inextinguishable.”
Fire-fighting teams were still patrolling the area today.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the BOS Foundation said the annual forest fires in Central and East Kalimantan significantly impacted both their orangutans and their staff, and the overall BOS Foundation activities. “In Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, the smoke is getting thicker by the day as a result of forest and peatland areas being burned in the middle of a prolonged dry season,” the foundation said.
“This is clearly detrimental to both human and orangutan health, which in particular effects and triggers respiratory diseases leading to infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia due to degeneration of the body’s immune system.”
At the Nyaru Menteng Care Centre, about 28 kilometres from Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, visibility had been reduced to less than 50 meters in the mornings and late afternoons.
“The orangutan babies are the worst affected by this situation as they are still so young and their immune systems are too immature to fight these extreme environmental conditions. Six of our 13 orangutan babies are receiving treatment from our veterinarians for acute respiratory infections and eye infections. Judging from the deteriorating situation, it looks likely that more medical cases will undoubtedly arise,” the foundation said.
“Heavy smoke has forced us to limit the activities within Forest School, and adjust the schedule to fewer hours per day. We may have to reduce further later this week with only a few of the really healthy orangutans able to go to school.
All the orangutan babies are currently limited to playing indoors which is not optimum, but the safest option we currently can provide.”
The only precautionary measures the medical team could take were close observations and supplements to enhance the orangutan’s immune systems.
“In response to growing fire risks, the team in Nyaru Menteng is patrolling and has drilled several wells around the Forest School to facilitate rapid response should fire outbreaks occur,” the foundation added.
Conditions for the orangutans on the BOS Foundation pre-release islands were no better than the ones in Forest School, the foundation said. “The Rungan river separating the islands from the mainland has almost completely dried up due to the long drought. Our technical team at Nyaru Menteng responsible for patrolling the islands have to walk for six hours each day to complete two feeding trips in order to provide the necessary supplementary food for orangutans inhabiting the islands. They also have to ensure that the orangutans stay on the island and do not roam across the drying river to nearby villages.”
The Samboja Lestari area was also engulfed by fire on August 31 and September 1 and 30 acres of rehabilitated forest were destroyed.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, WALHI, has urged the country’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, to not just visit fire-stricken areas, but to implement constructive policies.
Companies who are proven to have broken the law should have their permits revoked and all their assets confiscated by the state, WALHI says. Executives should face criminal charges, and guilty companies should have to pay restoration and compensation costs.
For 18 years, WALHI says, Indonesian governments have neglected to deal with the effects of illegal forest burning, the “systematic destruction of land by the expansion of industrial monocultures”.
WALHI says it has recorded hot spots on the land of 196 companies in Central Kalimantan this year.
The executive director of WALHI’s branch in Central Kalimantan, Arie Rompas, says the national government has been more focused on handling the fires in Sumatra so as to respond to protests from Singapore and Malaysia than on the situation in Central Kalimantan.
In Central Kalimantan, Arie says, people have been suffering in dangerous smog continuously for almost two months. Statistics showed hospital staff having to deal with close to 1,000 patients with acute respiratory illness in a one-week period.
The government should start thinking about evacuating the most vulnerable people from Central Kalimantan, Arie says.
The government, he says, is ignoring the main problem by continuing to give companies permits to operate on peatlands, which exacerbates the disaster.
WALHI campaign manager Kurniawan Sabar says no more canals should be dug on peatland. “Digging canals on peatlands causes the peat to dry out and makes it extremely vulnerable to fire.”
Thousands of kilometers of canals were dug on peatland in Central Kalimantan during the Suharto regime and this was the main cause of the continuing fires in the area, Kurniawan said. Canals needed to be blocked so that the local ecosystem could be restored.
In the West Kalimantan city of Pontianak, the pollution level was reported to have reached 706 on Tuesday.
Protests took place outside the governor’s office in Palangkaraya on Tuesday during which demonstrators criticised what they consider to be Indonesian government inaction in tackling the forest fires.
The protesters called for disaster management teams to be organised in advance to safeguard people’s health, and for sanctions to be levelled against those who burn land for profit.
The demonstrators included students and activists from about ten different organisations. They braved horrendous conditions, with the pollutant index in Palangkaraya reported to have hit a staggering 1,990.
In Singapore, meanwhile, a volunteer group called the Haze Elimination Action Team (HEAT) wants to sue and boycott the companies involved in starting fires in Indonesia.
Channel NewsAsia quoted the leader of the group, Ang Peng Hwa, as saying HEAT was trying to identify an “ideal plaintiff” so as to launch a lawsuit.
“Most of us have incurred some form of loss during the haze,” Ang was quoted as saying. “What we are looking for is someone or an organisation that has incurred losses of a few thousand dollars or more due the haze. An ideal plaintiff would be someone who has been hospitalized, for example.”
HEAT is trying to raise money to pay for the lawsuit and is hoping to get pro bono legal help as well.
It is impossible to establish how many people have died because of the fires and the haze, but on Monday, Indonesia’s Jakarta-based Centre for Orangutan Protection reported that the house of one of its workers, Paulinus Kristanto, burnt down in a blaze in West Kalimantan on Borneo, and his grandfather was killed.
In Riau province on Sumatra, nearly 1,000 hotspots were detected last week, and pollution was at an extremely dangerous level. The Air Pollutants Index (API) reading hit 984 in the provincial capital, Pekanbaru.
The environmental news website Mongabay reported last week on the deaths of three children, which their relatives believe are linked to the current wave of pollution.
An elementary school student in Riau died of respiratory failure the previous week and two other children, aged 15 and two, passed away in Jambi, where fires were also blazing, Mongabay reported.
Greenpeace says that modelling by researchers in 2012 attributed an average of 110,000 deaths a year in Riau to peat and forest fires.
“These deaths are primarily associated with long-term seasonal exposure to smoke particles,” said the forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Yuyun Indradi. “This increases to nearly 300,000 deaths during an El Niño year.”
This year is an El Niño year and there have been warnings that the 2015 dry season could last longer because of this.
The haze causes innumerable health problems ranging from asthma, breathing problems, and headaches to skin rashes and lung, eye, and skin problems.
It is estimated that about 26,000 people in Riau are suffering from respiratory infections.
New findings about deaths from air pollution were published in the journal “Nature” on September 16.
According to the findings of a team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, air pollution kills 3.3 million people per year. The researchers said that number could double by 2050 if nothing is done to lessen pollution, especially in Asia.
Ironically, a meeting between Malaysian and Indonesian government representatives about the haze has reportedly been postponed twice – because of the haze.
The meeting between Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, and Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry had been scheduled for yesterday (Thursday) in Jakarta, but was postponed.
The ministers’ meeting, to discuss the contents and terms of a memorandum of understanding to combat the transboundary haze, was first scheduled for September 18.
Added pressure from Singapore
The NEA in Singapore has written to its Indonesian counterpart with coordinates of hotspots detected over Sumatra. The agency has asked for help in analysing the coordinates and wants the names of the companies that hold the concessions for these areas, including the names of the office bearers of those companies.
The Singaporean government says it is examining how to apply more economic pressure against errant companies.
Balakrishnan said the government would do more to promote green procurement. “The government will look into how it can support companies which are recognised by their industry or by international bodies to have instituted sustainable practices.”
This, Balakrishnan said, would lead to an expectation that companies – and especially those involved in the palm oil and forestry sectors – should be transparent about their supply chains.
“Ultimately, errant companies must know that there is a price to be paid for damaging our health, environment and economy,” the minister said.
In Malaysia, the public can access API readings here.
In Singapore, PSI readings can be accessed here.
Singapore has special haze updates here.
The blaze at Samboja Lestari:
Headline photo: A fire in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Rini Sulaiman/Norwegian Embassy for the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Article updated on September 26 with comments from WALHI and added information from Singapore.
Article updated again on September 29 with plantation company names.