Clarity needed on companies behind the haze

Singapore and Malaysia seek clarification from Indonesia on companies involved; environmental groups say firms should accept responsibility rather than hide behind their zero burn policy

dumai haze
Market vendors in Dumai wear masks to protect themselves from air pollution caused by the forest fires in Sumatra. The forest fires continue to cause record-breaking air pollution in Singapore and Malaysia. Image: Greenpeace

Singapore and Malaysia has sought clarification from Indonesia on statements made by officials on the involvement of Singapore- and Malaysia-linked companies in the illegal land clearing practices in Indonesia, which is causing the region’s worst haze outbreak in history.

Both countries have asked Indonesia for evidence to support the claims of the companies’ involvement.

The Singapore companies that were previously reported to own land where hotspots were located included Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a Sinar Mas unit, and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL).   

Indonesian officials then later said there was no strong evidence against these companies, while the companies denied involvement.

APP managing director of sustainability, Aida Greenbury, told Eco-Business: “We do not practice, and highly condemn the slash and burn activity for its detrimental impact to the environment and the rainforests.”

APP said it has enforced a no burn policy on its suppliers’ concessions since 1996. It said that its satellite data reported 74 hotspots in its suppliers’ area in Riau province, where fires are raging. Ground verification reported that only seven points are actually forest fires, affecting around 200 hectares of land. 

“Our preliminary investigation found that five of the fires were set by the community to clear land for crops and two cases are still under investigation,” said Greenbury. 

Golden Agri-Resources, also a Sinar Mas unit, and APRIL similarly said there were no hotspots of fires in their concessions.

Indonesian ministers have since named eight Malaysian-owned companies, some directly linked to Malaysia’s Sime Darby, as among 14 companies being investigated for burning in Riau that led to the haze.

The eight Indonesian companies in Malaysian ownership named:  

  • PT Langgam Inti Hiberida
  • PT Bumi Rakksa Sejati
  • PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation
  • PT Udaya Loh Dinawi
  • PT Adei Plantation
  • PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa
  • PT Multi Gambut Industri
  • PT Mustika Agro Lestari

Environmental groups on the ground such as Greenpeace International say that their own investigations had revealed hundreds of fire hotspots in palm oil concessions owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies.

In a statement issued late on Monday night, Greenpeace International said palm oil and pulp and paper companies in Indonesia should accept responsibility for their role in the country’s forest fires rather than hide behind zero burn policies or try and imply local communities are to blame.

“Palm oil giants such as Sime Darby and Wilmar International can’t just wash their hands of responsibility for these crimes and hide behind their zero burning policies. These types of companies created the conditions for this disaster by draining and clearing peatland,” said Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace International.

The group also noted that half the hotspots were located in areas marked for protection by Indonesia’s forest moratorium, revealing lax law enforcement and protection.

The palm oil and pulp and paper industries are seen as the primary culprits driving the deforestation and peatland destruction happening in Sumatra, as farmers use traditional slash-and-burn techniques to clear their planations.

When peatland is cleared and drained of water for plantations it becomes prone to fire. Any fire, either deliberate, accidental or from small-scale clearing, can become an environmental disaster, said Bustar.

The fires in Sumatra are smouldering both above and underground in peat, a rich carbon store, whose destruction has propelled Indonesia into the third largest carbon emitter in the world.

Under Indonesian law, development on peat up to three meters deep is still legal, and also the palm oil industry’s certification system, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), does not ban all development on peat.

RSPO secretary general Darrel Webber, in a separate statement to Eco-Business on Monday, condemned “negligent activities” related to the haze.

He said RSPO is looking to identify members that have been implicated and will be instructing them to “immediately deploy measures that will terminate any open burning that may have been caused by them”.

RSPO will take remedial actions against these companies if the forest fires are due to negligent conduct, he said.

Companies who have been named in reports who are RSPO members:

  • PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa
  • Tabung Haji Plantations
  • Sinar Mas
  • Kuala Lumpur Kepong
  • Sime Darby

The latest haze incident has strained diplomatic ties between the three countries affected. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday apologised for the haze that had blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in the past week - a move seen as soothing tensions after Indonesian officials had hit back at its neighbours for their reaction to the haze.

“For what has happened, as President, I say sorry and seek the understanding of our relatives in Singapore and Malaysia,” he said.

“Indonesia had no intention to cause this. And we will continue to bear responsibility to overcome what has happened,” he said in a televised press conference, adding that Indonesia was stepping up its response to control the fires by cloud-seeding and water-bombing.

Indonesian police on Monday had arrested two farmers for illegally starting fires to clear land in Sumatra, the first detentions linked to fires.

The Singapore government, meanwhile, is looking into what action it can take against Singapore-based companies, if they were found to be responsible for the illegal burning.


Company statements

APP: “Our fire fighting crews, together with community members, have been working hard to control the fires in our suppliers’ concessions. The task is very complex because of the combination between strong wind, high temperature and the fact that the fire has reached peat land.”

Golden Agri: “Our contractors who clear land must comply with our zero burning policy. Only mechanical means such as excavators and bulldozers are used in our land preparation. We monitor our process stringently to ensure strict adherence to our zero burning policy. We educate our workers, contractors and small holders on our zero burning policy, as well as on the prevention and fighting of fires.”


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