Businesses must take responsibility to prevent fires

Singapore and Indonesian government officials say companies must ensure that sustainable policies and practices are implemented throughout their supply chain.

Businesses have to take full responsibility to prevent forest fires and avoid a repeat of last year’s unprecedented haze crisis which blanketed the South-east Asian region in a smog for months, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said last Friday.

Speaking at the Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources held in Singapore, Masagos said “agro-forestry companies should take full responsibility for fire prevention and mitigation in their concessions. There must not be a repeat of last year’s fires.”

He also said that companies should invest in efforts to rehabilitate degraded and fire-prone peatlands, and commended the Indonesian government for appointing former WWF conservationist Nazir Foead to head an agency looking into rehabilitating peatlands in the country.

Set up by in January this year by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the Peatland Restoration Agency’s target is to restore 2 million hectares of peatland in seven provinces within five years.

“We cannot afford to have massive releases of carbon that negate global efforts to combat climate change as what happened last year,” said Masagos at the event held at Ritz-Carlton hotel and organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“Companies must also ensure that sustainable policies and practices don’t stop with them, but are implemented throughout their supply chain,” he added.

Masagos’s comments follows an announcement last Thursday by President Jokowi, as he is widely known, to ban new oil palm and mining permits in a bid to curb the country’s rampant deforestation.

Several hotspots have emerged in Indonesia in recent weeks. Illegal forest fires have been a key bilateral issue between Singapore and Indonesia for more than a decade and tensions have been rising since the haze crisis last July led to deaths, respiratory illnesses and billions of dollars of economic losses in affected countries.  

Masagos shared that Singapore is “sparing no efforts to address the commercial roots of transboundary haze” by pursuing errant companies under the country’s new Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA), which can impose fines of up to S$2 million on those found guilty. 

The country’s National Environment Agency recently served court notices to a foreign director of a company linked to the haze when he was in Singapore, said Masagos.

“In accordance with the law, we will take every necessary step to enforce the THPA, bearing in mind that outside of Singapore, there are limited possibilities.”

He said: “My message to all these companies is simply this – companies practising unsustainable production that affect us with haze must know that their actions will not lead to profitability and that they will have to face the consequences sooner or later.”

He highlighted that just last week, major consumer firms Unilever, Mars and Kellogg cancelled their contracts with a Malaysian palm oil producer.

Although he did not name the company, IOI group has been in the news for losing major customers following a suspension of the company’s certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) over deforestation practices.

“The government lauds the efforts of these companies in taking proactive steps to incorporate environmental sustainability into their entire supply chains and operations,” he said.

My message to all these companies is simply this – companies practising unsustainable production that affect us with haze must know that their actions will not lead to profitability and that they will have to face the consequences sooner or later.

Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources 

To do its part, the Singapore government will procure only printing paper products that carry the Singapore Green Label - a local sustainability certification administered by the non-profit Singapore Environment Council - by the third quarter of this year, he said.

‘Zero chance’ of repeat of haze

Also speaking at the event, Nazir Foead gave the assurance that there was “zero chance” of a repeat of last year’s haze crisis this year.

“I cannot guarantee that there won’t be fires… but the scale of fires (seen last year) will dramatically be less… our target is to have no haze,” he told reporters on the sidelines.

Although acknowledging that Indonesia has made similar promises in the past, he emphasised that this year “is different” because of the level of determination by governments, companies and civic society.

He said that the Indonesian Government was “shocked” at what happened last year and has taken multiple steps to tackle the issue.

“We are not in a denial stage anymore, we’re in a stage of correcting the mistakes of the past,” he said, adding that “supression activites” were working well. For example, the move to promote or demote village chiefs depending on the extent of fires in their villages have been effective at controlling and responding to fires, he said.

He also shared that the agency plans to make a map of a scale of 1: 50,000 of these affected peatlands publicly available within three months, and this will show whether companies are fulfilling their obligation to restore damaged peatland.

Peatlands in their natural state are resistant to fire because they are wet underground, but they can be highly flammable when they are dried and degraded. In some cases, when they have been drained using deep canals, they can burn for weeks or months.

Canal-blocking and construction of dams are seen by forestry experts to be an effective way to restore water in peatlands and reduce further drainage.

Nazir told reporters that peatlands are also suitable for the cultivation of other crops including sago and timber, which can provide an alternative income for farmers.

On Saturday, Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya seemed to take issue with Masagos’s comments.

She told local media that Indonesia has taken significant steps to prevent a repeat of the fires, and Singapore should focus on its own role. 

“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,” Siti told, a newly-set up Indonesian website covering forest issues. 

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