Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Tough to pinpoint haze culprits

Poor law enforcement, corruption, unclear rules on land use hamper probes: Observers
By David Fogarty, Assistant Foreign Editor and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2015

In a matter of weeks, Indonesia's haze crisis has exploded despite pledges by President Joko Widodo and some provincial governments to maximise efforts to prevent fires from engulfing large parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

But accurately identifying those behind many of the fires is far from simple. It is easy to blame big plantation companies because of the large areas they control and, at times, because of the large numbers of hot spots recorded on their lands.

But the situation is far more complex. For big plantation firms, fires are their top concern because the blazes destroy crops.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and environment experts say there are many actors involved but also point to investigations being hampered by poor law enforcement, corruption and unclear rules on land use.

"Studies of fire and haze in Kalimantan and Sumatra firmly point towards small-scale farmers and other under-the-radar, mid-scale landowners rather than large companies as the main cause of fires and haze," wrote Dr Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist of the Borneo Futures initiative, in a recent commentary in the Jakarta Globe. - Indonesian forestry expert, Dr Herry Purnomo, argues that both Malaysia and Singapore should be...
Posted by TODAY on Monday, September 14, 2015

During a visit to Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province, The Straits Times saw many small grass fires on a trip outside the city.

The fires could have been started by local farmers, fishermen wanting to clear access to streams and illegal loggers.

Evidence shows that the majority of fires usually occur outside timber, logging and oil palm concessions and that farmers are partly to blame. Complicating the picture further is that many pulpwood concessions have communities living inside them. In some cases, transmigrants illegally claim a piece of land by clearing it using fire and then planting crops - particularly in protected forest areas.

Indonesian law allows farmers to clear forested land using fire, provided the area cleared does not exceed 2ha.

"We have seen largely two types of actors involved in fires in Sumatra," Mr Aditya Bayunanda, WWF Indonesia's Forest Commodity Market Transformation Leader, told The Straits Times yesterday.

"First of all, people are actively setting fires to clear lands, often as part of grabbing new lands. Land-grabbing has recently been increasing inside protected areas as much of Sumatra's lands had been leased to companies. Such illegal encroachments are often sponsored by companies, financiers or even government officials," said Mr Aditya, who is also a member of Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of local NGOs.

Second, he said, oil palm and pulp plantations prime the landscape for fire by opening up lands, particularly flammable peat lands.

"Such fires can occur through various causes, for example, (being) set deliberately by people who have conflicts with the companies," he said.

Mr Achmad Santosa, who was in charge of monitoring law enforcement under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, told The Straits Times yesterday: "The environment law says companies must douse a fire within their concessions, regardless of where the fire started.

"There are companies that do not meet the requirements to have adequate fire-fighting systems. This must be regularly audited and followed up," he said .

Government officials privately say companies pay off prosecutors and the police. Officials and NGOs also say some companies pay third parties to start fires to avoid being directly linked. Local communities are then blamed.

Some companies also take advantage of Indonesia's lack of a unified land-use map, meaning there is often confusion and conflict over how land can and should be used. This makes it easier to illegally clear land and avoid prosecution.

The Global Forest Watch (GFW) programme, run by Washington-based World Resources Institute, produces daily analyses on the fires in Indonesia. Between Sept 7 and yesterday, GFW's analysis of accumulated hot spots for that week showed 48 per cent of fires were outside pulpwood, logging and palm oil concessions. Of the remainder, 48 per cent were on pulpwood concessions and 3 per cent on oil palm concessions. This, though, does not mean the companies started the majority of the fires.

Researchers at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor, near Jakarta, say it is essential that the government understands the political economy around land use and the risk of formulating policies based on incomplete, erroneous or misinterpreted fire data.

Pulp and paper giant flags errant landowners
By David Fogarty, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2015

Pulpwood and oil palm concessions cover millions of hectares in Indonesia. For some, fire was used to illegally clear the land in the past and many have cleared forest areas on drained peatlands, which are highly flammable.

Local communities often surround the concessions and many larger pulpwood concessions have large areas set aside for communities and for conservation zones that also make them vulnerable to fires started inside and outside their concessions.

Fires by illegal loggers add to the problem.

Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) is Indonesia's largest pulp and paper firm, with concessions covering 2.6 million ha in Indonesia. At present, more than 300 fire alerts have been recorded on APP concessions in Sumatra over the past week.

"The majority of the fires - more than 90 per cent - come from outside the concessions," Ms Aida Greenbury, APP's managing director of sustainability, told The Straits Times yesterday.

"I have people putting their lives on the front lines for the past two weeks making sure our forests are protected," she added.

But the problem was the lack of commitment from those who own the lands outside APP's concessions, she said.

"APP takes fire as an issue very seriously and we recognise that as a responsible business we have a responsibility both to tackle the fires that are burning in our concession areas and to work with other stakeholders on finding long-term solutions," she said.

"Fire is a hugely complex issue, involving the rights of local communities, illegal activity by small enterprises often with political links and fundamental complexities over land use rights, maps, ownership and protection."

She pointed to APP's policy of zero deforestation, zero burning and a newly announced programme of improved peat land management.

"If the rest of the landscape do whatever they want, build whatever drainage canals and burn lands wherever they want, we will be affected. And that's why we have so many hot spots in our operations."

Riau declares emergency as haze worsens
PSI levels in Singapore hover within unhealthy range and are expected to become worse
By Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia Correspondent, Samantha Boh and Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2015

Indonesia has declared a haze emergency in Sumatra's Riau province, as the choking smoke surged way past already hazardous levels and forced thousands to flee Pekanbaru, Riau's capital, which is about 280km away from Singapore.

The deteriorating situation - the result of forest fires in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra provinces - prompted President Joko Widodo to instruct the police and armed forces chiefs to deploy additional personnel to help combat the haze.

Mr Joko, who is on an official visit to Qatar, also warned in a statement yesterday that the government would take harsh legal action.

"I have also told law enforcers to take stern action against those who are responsible, including confiscating land licences and forestry permits," he said.

In Singapore, the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings hovered within the unhealthy range (101-200) throughout yesterday and are expected to worsen. At 9pm, it ranged between 133 and 166. The three-hour PSI was 249.

Mr Chia Aik Song, an associate scientist with the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing at the National University of Singapore, said that while it was difficult to predict how the haze would develop, he noted that a dry spell would worsen the situation. "As long as there is not enough rain to put out the fires, the threat of unfavourable winds bringing smoke from Sumatra across the Strait of Malacca to Singapore will persist."

The 24-hour PSI is predicted to be in the mid to high sections of the unhealthy range but may deteriorate into the low section of the very unhealthy range (201-300) today, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) yesterday evening. Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan spoke with Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar yesterday afternoon to further express his concern over the haze situation.

According to the NEA, he also reiterated Singapore's offer of help, which Indonesia has so far declined. Ms Siti said she would consult President Joko again on the offer. She also agreed to share the names of companies suspected of causing the fires when they are confirmed.

Singapore's Ministry of Education has activated haze management measures and will consider closing all schools if the air quality is at the hazardous level, it said on its website.

In Malaysia, the government has ordered schools in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Putrajaya, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan to be closed today. Air Pollutant Index readings as of 11pm yesterday showed that air quality in Kuala Selangor had reached a dangerous level of 207, while readings for the rest of Selangor hovered around the 170 range.

New strategy needed to end haze problem
Despite high-profile moves by the public and private sectors to address the haze issue, it is nowhere close to being resolved.
By Jessica Cheam, Published The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2015

Engrossed in the general election last week, many residents in Singapore hardly remarked on the city's steadily worsening air quality brought about by raging forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia.

Then last Thursday - Cooling-off Day - everyone paused for a breather from the hustings and realised, well, that breathing was not quite so easy.

The three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which tracks air quality, hit a high of 248 at 3am last Friday.

All across pockets of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the haze triggered flight delays, health warnings and cancellations of outdoor events. It was a stark reminder of the persistent nature of the problem, which remains unresolved despite several so-called breakthroughs by both the public and private sectors in addressing it.

The annual haze is caused by the slash-and-burn agricultural practices of Indonesian farmers, who favour it as the quickest and cheapest way of clearing plantations for oil palm, paper and other crops. Carbon-rich, waterlogged peatlands are also often drained in this process, leaving behind highly flammable matter that is difficult to put out once it catches fire.

The onset of El Nino, a climate phenomenon involving long spells of hot and dry weather, has only exacerbated the problem.

In June 2013, these fires were so severe they resulted in record-breaking levels of air pollution in Singapore and a state of emergency in towns in Malaysia and Indonesia.

This triggered a series of responses to the haze. Environmental groups like Greenpeace targeted companies in the forest supply chain in high-profile campaigns. As a result, many of these Singapore-based firms - such as Wilmar International, Golden Agri Resources, and Asia Pulp and Paper - made landmark commitments to stop deforestation and to hold their suppliers to the same standards.

Industry groups such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil raised standards for their certification process.

On the governmental front, Singapore passed the Transboundary Haze Bill which allows it to penalise errant companies that cause haze. Indonesia ratified the Association of South-east Asian Nations Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, some 12 years after its launch. Last December, Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised to restore forest peatlands and hold companies that cleared forests accountable.

Despite these efforts, the haze problem persists because its systemic causes are not being addressed.

Indonesia is a central protagonist and holds the key to the solution, but, in many of its efforts, it has been a case of one step forward, two steps back. Take, for instance, the interlinked issues of transparency, land use information and law enforcement. For decades, there has been a lack of transparency when it comes to maps on land ownership. Without a centralised, public map, the task of pinpointing errant companies or landowners is a murky affair.

To address this, Indonesia has embarked on the One Map Initiative - a comprehensive map of land ownership to provide clarity on the exact boundaries of land owned by companies, communities and the government - which is to be completed in two to three years' time. This effort must be accelerated.

Experts have also noted that even as the government works on this One Map, it has been reluctant to make its existing concession maps publicly available to public forest-monitoring platforms such as the World Resources Institute's Global Forest Watch. If Indonesia is serious about tackling the haze issue, it must release data that will facilitate public monitoring.

The other issue is law enforcement. In the past few decades, officials have either been too relaxed in prosecuting those responsible for starting fires - or been bribed not to do so. This needs to change.

There have been some encouraging signals under Mr Joko, with 10 plantation companies reportedly under investigation for intentional burning.

But one other related concern is that the regional community may be looking in the wrong place. While recent attention has largely focused on the behaviour of large companies - and rightly so, as they own large swathes of forest land - there is an increasing body of evidence that points to small- to mid-scale farmers as equally culpable. Reports in the Jakarta Globe point to studies showing that in Sumatra and Kalimantan, 59 per cent and 73 per cent of fire emissions originate from outside timber and oil-palm concession boundaries respectively. These farmers fly under the radar, are immune to any big campaign by non-governmental organisations, and lie outside the influence of industry groups.

It is obvious that efforts to tackle the haze must also shift towards addressing this group, by implementing local initiatives that incentivise these farmers to manage their land with non-burning methods, among other things.

Encouragingly, the civic sector seems to have been shifting its campaigning efforts to address other players in the forest supply chain.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for example, launched a new report in May that targets financial institutions in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia for their role in the region's haze and deforestation problems.

The report revealed that a large number of banks in these countries - including Singapore's DBS, OCBC and UOB - perform poorly when it comes to applying environmental, social and governance standards to the companies that they make loans to. This means that they are indirectly financing deforestation and, as a result, the haze.

In July, WWF Singapore, the People's Movement to Stop Haze and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs launched the country's first public campaign to tackle the haze, focusing their efforts on the consumer.

The campaign, "We Breathe What We Buy", seeks to educate buyers about the palm oil used widely in products - from lipstick to toothpaste and ice cream - through outreach programmes, ad placements, school talks and art installations.

The ultimate goal is to get people to buy products only from companies that use certified sustainable palm oil, and trigger a change further up the supply chain to get farmers and landowners to operate responsibly.

Singapore will no doubt regain its clear blue skies when the wind changes direction, but it is clear that the region needs to coordinate and reconsider its strategy.

And we must keep at it, regardless of clear skies or not, if there is to be any hope for a long-lasting solution.

Jessica Cheam, who writes this fortnightly column, is the editor of Eco-Business, an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication.

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