Smoke from Indonesian forest fires is sending air quality levels in the region into the unhealthy range this week, triggering flight delays, health warnings and a renewed search for a lasting solution.
Singapore’s three-hour Pollution Standards Index (PSI), which measures air quality, climbed to 147 by 5pm on Thursday - the highest this year - while the Air Pollution Index spiked to 175 in Sarawak, Malaysia on the same day. At ground zero, PSI levels in Pekanbaru, Sumatra hit 282 on Thursday, with visibility levels falling to a mere 200 metres.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency on Wednesday counted 140 hotspots in Sumatra. At the same time, environmental group Greenpeace noted that it had counted 3,464 fire hotspots this year in Indonesia’s peatlands, and that ““the location of fires shows that they are clearly related to forest clearing and peatland drainage”.
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As palm oil, paper, and other forest product companies expand operations into Indonesia, the process of making space for plantations often involves cutting down tropical rainforest or practicing slash-and-burn clearing. Peatlands - carbon-rich, waterlogged soils - are also often drained to make way for plantations, leaving behind highly flammable organic matter where fires smoulder for a long time under the surface layer and are difficult to put out.
In 2013, air pollution caused by these practices hit record-breaking levels with Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia enveloped in a smog in June and July. The three-hour PSI in Singapore then hit a record high of 401 on June 21, while in Johor, Malaysia, the Air Pollution Index soared to 746, leading the authorities to declare a state of emergency in the towns of Muar and Ledang.
This crisis spurred regional governments, environmental groups, and companies to quickly devise solutions to tackle deforestation and forest fires in the archipelago nation, but this year’s resurgence of the haze - which is also set against the backdrop of El Nino, a climate phenomenon which is set to bring long spells of hot and dry weather to Indonesia - comes despite their numerous efforts.
Targeted in recent years by environmental campaigns to end deforestation, many companies operating in Indonesia’s forests have made ‘zero-deforestation’ pledges.
Palm oil firms such as Golden Agri-Resources, Wilmar, and First Resources; and paper firms Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL) are among those which have pledged to stop developing on forest lands. These companies also said they would hold their suppliers to the same standards.
Five key palm oil players - Golden Agri, Asian Agri, Wilmar, Musim Mas, and Cargill - along with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce also made the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge last year, which is an agreement to develop palm oil in a deforestation-free, socially responsible way.
Indonesia stepping up
Indonesia has also made recent moves to tackle the haze, the most high profile of which was its ratification of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution last September, 12 years after its launch.
This agreement requires parties to jointly tackle the haze by sharing information with one another, developing ways to prevent and monitor the haze, among other obligations.
This has gone too far. Let this serve as an example for other companies: Don’t let fires break out again.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo
In December, the country’s President Joko Widodo renewed his promise to restore peatlands and crack down on companies which cleared forests. This May, Widodo also renewed Indonesia’s national forest moratorium, which prohibits licenses to develop on primary forests and peatland.
Singapore last year also passed a Transboundary Haze Bill which allows the city-state to slap fines of up to S$2 million on companies found to be responsible for activities that contribute to haze pollution in Singapore.
A group of 36 national governments also signed the New York Declaration on Forests last September, which aims to halve natural forest loss by 2020 and end it by 2030.
Despite these efforts, the problem still persists because systemic causes are not addressed, experts said.
The return of the haze is “testament to the government’s ongoing failure to address forest clearing and peatland destruction,” said Greenpeace.
A key shortcoming was the government’s refusal to release land management information including detailed maps showing who controls forests and peatlands, said the campaigning group, adding that this is a sign of their “aversion to transparency”.
This lack of access to information also undermines zero-deforestation efforts by palm oil companies and others in the supply chain, added Greenpeace.
Teguh Surya, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said: ““Indonesians have a right to know who is behind forest and peatland destruction…We won’t let the government hide behind a smokescreen of its own making”.
“Greenpeace urges the government to undertake rapid intervention to protect peatlands and remaining forest areas, including best-practice mapping of the nation’s peatlands,” he added.
Greenpeace has also criticised the failure of Indonesia’s draft Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) - the emissions reduction plan which must be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by October - to set out clear solutions for the ongoing deforestation crisis or even to commit to zero deforestation and peatland protection.
Surya noted that this omission will be an “embarrassment for Indonesia on the world stage” at December’s climate talks in Paris, where the global community hopes that an agreement will be inked to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. This is because deforestation and peatland destruction are responsible for nearly two-thirds of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, the government is stepping up on enforcement. The Straits Times on Thursday reported that 10 plantation companies in Indonesia are under investigation for intentional burning. The penalty for this is a fine of up to S$1 million, and as much as 10 years in jail for the management.
Another firm, PT Tempirari Palm Resources, is also in hot water after President Widodo paid an unannounced visit to its plantations in South Sumatra, where fires have cleared about 200 hectares of forest. Criticising the company for allowing the fires to rage, Widodo declared that the police will investigate the company. If found guilty of using fire for clearance, the company could lose its plantation permit.
“This has gone too far. Let this serve as an example for other companies: Don’t let fires break out again,” said Widodo.