Palm oil players urged to step up game to eradicate haze

Local communities need to take early action to avoid the haze disaster from happening again during this year’s dry season

by HARIZAH KAMEL / pic by BLOOMBERG

THE palm oil industry needs to step up its game to solve the transboundary haze problem that mainly affects three South-East Asian countries — Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

According to the Global Forest Watch Fires report for Indonesia in 2019, 11% of fires came from palm oil concessions, while 15% were from pulpwood plantations.

No matter how small the percentage, the industry must take accountability for forest burning, said Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SDP) chief sustainability officer Prof Dr Simon Lord.

“Palm oil may just account for 11%, but the palm oil industry has to own (up) to that 11%. We need to solve this problem and we can’t do it alone,” he said in a recent webinar entitled “Dousing the Fire on Haze and its Misconceptions” organised by SDP.

On law enforcement within the industry, Lord said the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil initiative has great potential if used wisely, although the rest of the world might prefer the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

“There is a call here to follow along the lines of the RSPO and for pre-competitive collaboration in the industry and also with governments because if governments aren’t involved, then the major stakeholder isn’t involved in this particular issue,” he added.

The haze, mainly attributed to fires burning in Indonesia’s Sumatera and Borneo islands, has been an annual affair in South-East Asia for over a decade. The same narrative plays out every year: The fires start, smoke spreads and visibility across key cities in the region drops, forcing flights to be cancelled, while schools are closed for health reasons.

Authorities will impose a blanket ban on open burning and threaten legal action against the culprits. Yet, with no consensus on the origins of the yearly blaze, the issue remains unresolved.

Environment and Water Ministry deputy secretary general (Environment Management) Dr Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu said Malaysia has implemented four measures to deal with the problem, namely legal and policies intervention, infrastructure, cooperation and awareness.

“From January this year until July 18, the Department of Environment received about 5,000 complaints of fires, but these are small fires. About 3,354 actions were taken including 241 compounds and about 84 cases were brought to court,” he said.

He added that cloud seeding is just a symptomatic answer to the haze that does not solve the problem.

“To curb the haze issue, Malaysia is working very closely with Indonesia to ensure we can together mitigate and address it,” he said.

Singaporean advocacy group, the People’s Movement to Stop Haze, hopes to develop more knowledge on the issue, so people will make more informed decisions around their consumption practices, its ED Benjamin Tay said.

“We must understand that 85% of global palm oil production happens in Indonesia and Malaysia, and because it is so widely used, there is no way we should be moving away from this product,” Tay said, adding that palm oil is the most efficient oil crop available worldwide.

He said the school of thought that the Indonesian government does not care about the haze and is not doing anything about the fires is untrue.

“Indonesia has very firm policies that are in place to stop fires from happening and protecting the peatland areas,” he said.

The unwise use of fires on peatland areas by the local communities in Indonesia has caused the smog in recent years, Indonesia’s Palangkaraya University Centre of Forest Rehabilitation Control and Community Service Institute head Dr Ir Aswin Usup said.

The use of fire for “land clearing” on peatland for agricultural and other purposes has led to wildfires that travel into other areas.

“Therefore, the role of the local communities to take early action to prevent and put out the fires is necessary, so that we can avoid the haze disaster from happening again during the dry season of 2020,” he said.

The Indonesian government has taken steps to reduce or stop peatland fires, such as establishing the Peat Restoration Agency in 2016.

Aswin said the group’s main task is to restore about 2.5 million ha of peatland in seven provinces in Indonesia, by promoting peat rewetting, revegetation and revitalisation of the social economic community.