Legislate penalties for firms responsible for haze: SIIA

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs gathered experts from the region to call an end to the yearly worsening haze affecting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and proposed a list of actions that will address its underlying causes

Haze Monitoring System to combat deforestation
From farmers and villagers in Indonesia to residents of Singapore, many were affected during the haze crisis last June and this has prompted experts in the region to propose decisive steps that will address the air pollution and the deforestation behind it. Image: © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Regional governments should introduce new legislation that will penalise companies guilty of using fire to clear lands, while non-government organisations and the media must expose and prosecute these firms to put a stop to the haze crisis, said the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and experts at a roundtable event on Friday in Singapore.

The SIIA, a non-profit and think-tank organisation, convened 30 leaders from various NGOs and academic institutions from the three haze affected nations – Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – to tackle the pollution problem and its broader context of issues in a day-long event called the NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change at Carlton Hotel.

According to the organisation, this is the first time representatives from these countries gathered to call for immediate action since the region’s worst haze incident in June, which affected thousands of residents, slowed business and tourism and even prompted a state of emergency in some towns in Malaysia.

On the other hand, government officials from the three countries have met on a number of occasions to address the severe haze situation. The latest meeting was just this October at the Asean Summit in Brunei, where the Haze Monitoring System (HMS) was adopted.

Developed by Singapore, it uses land concessions maps, satellite imagery and hotspot information to identify companies committing illegal burning and land clearances.

And to complement this measure and ensure the haze is addressed, the SIIA and environmental and academic experts came up with a list of decisive actions at the roundtable.  

SIIA chairman Simon Tay said in a concluding statement that several steps were proposed and directed to 12 primary stakeholders, including the Indonesian government which has oversight on the locations of the hot spots causing the haze, and the companies in the palm oil and other land-based industries, who own, manage, or operate in the plantations and concession areas.

Tay said: “Governments should consider more district-level cooperation in fire-prone Indonesian provinces … for governments to legislate penalties on irresponsible companies whose actions damage the environment and cause transboundary haze.”

Currently, no company has been officially prosecuted for the fires and haze, although several companies such as Singapore-based Sinar Mas and APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Limited) have been named during and after the incident in a number of separate investigations.

The SIIA has been involved in organising haze dialogues since the worst fires in 1997 and 1998. While significant progress by governments and NGOs on the ground have been made through the years, the problem is still here and we need to have the sense to do more to make it better

Simon Tay, SIIA chairman

During the roundtable, environmental experts and NGO officers, which included Greenpeace’s Bustar Maitar and Abetnego Tarigan from Friends of the Earth Indonesia, also emphasised on the need to effectively implement the HMS.

One challenge in getting guilty firms to take responsibility has been the lack of a credible monitoring mechanism and accurate maps that prove the location of the fire hotspots in concession areas.

According to the SIIA, Asean environment ministers should “continue to advance relevant national policies and effectively operate the Haze Monitoring System” with utmost accessibility and transparency as possible.

Tay pointed out that the “information is not perfect” so “verification by local communities should be sought including through social media and other innovative and technological means”.

Additionally, the SIIA and roundtable delegates called on the Indonesia government to push for the One Map Initiative. This will eliminate the varying maps, whether those used by local agencies, submitted by palm oil and paper and pulp companies, or those assessed by NGOs to ascertain the magnitude of the deforestation, which contributes to the haze.

That said, experts emphasised that more attention should be given not only to the haze and fires but also to the root causes.  

They recognised various initiatives by environmental NGOs in the region that formed working groups to collaborate with the palm oil and other industries related to the haze to improve the situation, namely the Palm Oil Innovation Group, Malaysian Palm Oil NGO Coalition and the Forum Tata Ruang Sumatera.

These groups, such as the POIG, are providing a set of standards to companies that will help them eliminate deforestation practices from their supply chain, enabling the production of sustainable palm oil-based goods.

Recently, Greenpeace, a member of POIG, released a progress report on the on-going efforts of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) to fulfil a zero deforestation commitment, which consisted notably of a forest moratorium and signing an agreement with local communities to resolve a long-running dispute.

Prior to the moratorium that began in Feburary, APP’s suppliers were clearing “thousands of hectares of rainforest each month”, said Greenpeace in the report. APP was also allegedly caught red-handed with an internationally protected species – ramin – at their pulp mill in Indonesia. Ramin grows in peatland swamp forests which store high amounts of carbon and are home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.  

Maitar, head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign, said, “Greenpeace believes that nine months in, APP is serious about its Forest Conservation Policy and its key senior staff are genuinely committed to driving the delivery of these new commitments.” Greenpeace previously campaigned against APP but suspended this upon the introduction of APP’s FCP.

“Scrutiny from Greenpeace and other NGOs has been an important driver for us and we hope to continue to work with all stakeholders in this way over the coming years,” said Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability at APP.

The SIIA said on Friday it plans to hold another regional dialogue in 2014 to pool various members of industries and society to promote the sustainable use of resources and to discuss the larger context of land use, economic development and climate change.

Tay said, “The SIIA has been involved in organising haze dialogues since the worst fires in 1997 and 1998. While significant progress by governments and NGOs on the ground have been made through the years, the problem is still here and we need to have the sense to do more to make it better.”

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