Sunday 17 April 2016

Zero chance of haze like last year in region, says Indonesian official

‘Much fewer hotspots’ promised, with peatland restoration, other actions to prevent fires
By Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 16 Apr 2016

There is “zero chance” that any haze this year will be as severe as last year’s episode — where air quality hit hazardous levels and forced the closure of schools in Singapore and in the region — the head of an Indonesian agency recently set up to restore degraded peatland has boldly promised.

Acknowledging that fire prevention had not been a focus previously, Mr Nazir Foead, who was making his first overseas speech since taking the reins at the Peatland Restoration Agency, said “we are not in the denial stage anymore, we’re in the stage of correcting the mistakes of the past”.

“There will be hotspots, I cannot deny,” he added. “There will be fires, but the scale of the fires that create haze that choke the Indonesian public and our neighbours will dramatically be less.”

Mr Nazir, a former environmental activist, was addressing an audience of agroforestry and business players and non-governmental organisation representatives at the 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think tank on Friday (April 15). 

Asked if his prediction of less severe haze was too bold, Mr Nazir said things are very different this time round. Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Thursday issued a moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations, and had vowed in January to sack local military and police chiefs for uncontrolled fires in their provinces, for example.

“I cannot emphasise how seriously now Indonesia is preparing actions, programmes, changing policies to prevent fires from happening,” he said, at the event held at the Ritz-Carlton, Millennia Singapore.

The scale of the disaster last year, which affected tens of millions of people and cost Indonesia up to 475 trillion rupiah and Singapore about S$700 million, shocked the Indonesian government and sparked determination to not allow history to repeat, he added.

The haze episode in Singapore was protracted last year, lasting from September to November. The Pollutant Standards Index levels breached 2,000 in Central Kalimantan and Indonesians fled their homes for other cities, while in Singapore, the PSI crept to hazardous levels (above 300), causing schools to close on Sept 25.

The Peatland Restoration Agency was formed in January, with Mr Widodo setting the target to restore 2 million hectares of peatland in seven provinces. The agency has mapped out 2.26 million hectares of dry or canalised peatland that has been burnt frequently in recent years. Of this area, 360,000 hectares is conservation land. The remainder are in cultivation areas — three-quarters are concession areas awarded to companies and one-quarter is community land.

Of 2.6 million hectares that was burnt last year in Indonesia, nearly 1 million was peatland.

Mr Nazir’s agency aims to re-wet the peatland — carbon-rich wetlands that burn easily when drained — and provide alternative livelihoods to communities by identifying crops such as sago palm that grow well in wet conditions.

Peatland restoration in Riau province’s Meranti Islands was launched a few days ago, and Mr Nazir said peatland maps of four districts will be available in about three months.

His “dream” is to make the information publicly available. Asked about legal concerns previously cited, that have prevented Indonesia from publicly disclosing the concession maps of companies, Mr Nazir said it is something government institutions need to dicuss internally. “What I see (is), there is no national secret in providing the information of the concessions (to the public),” he said. Instead, companies and land managers would know they are being watched and be motivated to do right.

“When companies do good, communities and smallholders, the government has to think how to give incentives to do better, and let the public also see what is happening on the ground. That can only happen if we expose the maps,” he told reporters.

His agency has its work cut out, working with 12 ministers and seven governors and ensuring quality dams are built to raise the water table, among other tasks. But Mr Nazir reckoned the toughest challenge will be getting companies that have not adopted sustainability measures on board. “There might be corporations that might think (it’s) not my problem, it’s the community that burns the land.”

After mapping out the 1.9 million hectares of peatland in cultivated areas at a suitable scale, his agency will engage companies on restoration plans. Pulp companies commonly grow acacia on rather dry land but Mr Nazir said switching to species that grow well on wet peatland would be iyestdeal.

Singapore can play a role in the financing of alternative crop cultivation and serve as a market for products, he said.

Singapore 'should focus on own role in haze issue': Indonesian minister
No need to comment on neighbour's efforts to prevent forest and land fires, says Indonesian minister
The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2016

JAKARTA • Indonesia has taken substantial steps to prevent a repeat of the forest and land fires that caused last year's haze crisis, and Singapore should just focus on its own role in the transboundary issue instead of concerning itself with what its neighbour is doing.

That is the view of Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar as reported by an environmental news website over the weekend.

"We have been consistent in sticking to our part of the bargain, especially by attempting to prevent the recurrence of land and forest fires and by consistently enforcing the law. So, my question is - what has the Singaporean Government done? I feel that they should focus on their own role," Ms Siti told in a report posted online last Saturday.

According to the report, details of which The Straits Times could not reach the Environment and Forestry Ministry in Jakarta to verify, Ms Siti was referring to comments made by her Singaporean counterpart at a forum in Singapore last Friday.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli had said in his speech at the 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources that his government applauded Indonesian President Joko Widodo's latest move to push through a moratorium on new concessions for oil palm plantations and land for mining activities, in a bid to protect the environment.

Mr Masagos also said he welcomed the President's appointment of Mr Nazir Foead, a former director of WWF-Indonesia, to helm the new Peatland Restoration Agency.

A key aim of the agency, set up by President Joko, is to restore about 2 million ha of peatlands in seven provinces by 2020.

The Singapore minister's speech did not contain any criticism of Indonesia, the country's efforts in tackling the environmental challenges it faced, or Ms Siti.

The Foresthints report said Ms Siti "understood the predicament of the Singaporean authorities, as they had been bragging about their role in the situation to their own public, and now find themselves in a position where they need to back up their words with actions or risk losing credibility in the eyes of their own people".

"There is really no need to comment too much on the part Indonesia is currently playing. However, with all due respect to my Singaporean counterpart, what are they doing? And where has it got them?" Ms Siti was quoted as saying.

She said only Indonesia understood Indonesian problems and how to address them.

"The government is fully aware of the action that needs to be taken, in accordance with the Indonesian Constitution, in the interests of its citizens," said Ms Siti.

The Foresthints report comes at the end of a week when the Indonesian government seemed to be sending contradictory signals on the country's deforestation agenda.

While Mr Joko called for the moratorium on new concessions, the Agriculture Ministry pushed for a zero-deforestation pledge by the private sector to be disbanded over concerns of cartel-like trade practices that may disadvantage smaller players in the country.

Singapore taking action against firms behind forest fires
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor (Politics) In Tel Aviv and Audrey Tan In Singapore, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2016

Singapore is taking action under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act against companies that started fires or let their concessions burn, and contributed to last year's haze, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli has said.

It has given notices to six of these Indonesia-based firms, asking them to explain steps they are taking to put out and prevent fires on their land. Two have replied. A director of one of the four firms that have yet to reply has also been served with a notice to give information on his firm's move to mitigate fires on its land and prevent a repeat of last year's haze.

"He has left (Singapore), but is required to return," Mr Masagos told reporters on Tuesday night.

"Should he not return, he would have violated our laws," he said, adding that Singapore can arrest him if he returns later than the date stipulated in the notice.

Mr Masagos declined to disclose the name of the director or his firm, but said he can be detained in Singapore if he fails to give the required information. "We must not let companies get away with their most egregious acts," Mr Masagos added.

He made these points when asked by Singapore reporters about his Indonesian counterpart's remarks that asked what Singapore had done to combat forest fires. Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar had told news site last week that her country had been trying to prevent the recurrence of land and forest fires, and consistently enforcing the law. "My question is - what has the Singaporean Government done? I feel they should focus on their own role," she was quoted as saying.

Singapore experts, like Dr Mustafa Izzuddin of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said her comments, made "in that spirit of national pride", seemed directed at her home audience.

Dr Jonatan Lassa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that while Indonesia has committed to map hot spots, it needs to build structures like incident command systems on the ground to follow up and take action where needed.

Mr Masagos, in his media interview, also noted Singapore's good ties with Indonesia on many fronts, saying both are working together.

But the haze is a complex issue that has to be tackled not just bilaterally, but also at the Asean and regional level. For instance, Singapore led an Asean programme to make people more aware of what they can do to manage and restore peatland, on which most forest fires take place.

The six companies given notice by the National Environment Agency include Singapore-listed Asia Pulp and Paper, which has been asked about steps its subsidiaries and Indonesian suppliers are taking to put out fires in their concessions.

"We are now looking at them to see how we are going to move forward," Mr Masagos said. He declined to say more as investigations are ongoing. "The message to everybody is: Whether you are Singaporean, whether you are a foreigner, if you violate our laws, we will apply the law to its full extent."

Mr Chris Cheng of volunteer group People's Movement to Stop Haze called on firms to produce or buy palm oil and paper that are verified "haze-free". He added: "Our financial institutions can also ensure they do not lend to or invest in potential haze-causing companies."

Fighting haze with a single voice

Editorial, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2016

The recent promise by an Indonesian official that there will not be a repeat of the severe haze that affected the region last year is a reassuring reminder of Jakarta's determination to act against the scourge. The promise gained credibility because it came from Mr Nazir Foead, chief of the Peatland Restoration Agency, which was set up in January to protect peatlands and reduce the forest fires that lie at the heart of the problem. The creation of the agency itself is an indication that Indonesian President Joko Widodo treats seriously the enormous health, economic and diplomatic costs imposed by the haze.

The costs fall heavily on Indonesians themselves too. Last year, at least 19 people died from haze-related illnesses in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and an alarming number of acute respiratory tract infections were reported. The World Bank estimated that Indonesia had suffered losses of around 221 trillion rupiah (S$22.5 billion), or an estimated 1.9 per cent of its predicted gross domestic product, last year as a result of haze-generating fires. Conspiring with a lengthy dry season and the impact of El Nino, the daily emissions from the fires reportedly surpassed the average daily emissions of the entire US economy. The effects were also felt keenly in Malaysia and Singapore, amplifying the haze's transboundary nature. Considering the widespread harm caused, it was not excessive for observers to call it a crime against humanity.

It is against this harrowing background that Indonesia embarked on its latest anti-haze efforts. However, those initiatives are being weakened by conflicting signals emerging from different sectors of the political and administrative establishment. For example, Mr Joko called for a morato- rium on new concessions for oil palm plantations and land for mining activities. However, the Agriculture Ministry preferred a zero-deforestation pledge by the private sector to be disbanded. There was a clear divergence of objectives in what should have been a united policy.

In the same vein, but this time with insistent regional implications, appeared an inexplicable interjection by Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar. She admonished Singapore, advising it to focus on its own role in the transboundary issue instead of concerning itself with what its neighbour is doing. Asean members would step up to do more if their role is made clear. It is up to Indonesia to prevent the burning, for example, by acting against businesses operating on its territory that flout its laws. Singapore has passed legislation to hold culprits accountable for haze but to succeed in court, it will need evidence to support a case. Haze has been going on for many decades that it will take steely will and decisive steps to check the common urge to burn. To snuff out reckless habits, Indonesian leaders must speak with one voice.

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