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Haze finger-pointing: Time for companies to show and tell

If you felt confused or none the wiser after reading reports on the names of several major palm oil and pulp companies thrown up as culprits of the haze, as well as their subsequent denials, you could hardly be blamed.

Haze finger-pointing: Time for companies to show and tell

Peatland that has been burnt continues to smoulder, emitting smoke that cause haze n Riau province, Indonesia, June 21, 2013. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong

If you felt confused or none the wiser after reading reports on the names of several major palm oil and pulp companies thrown up as culprits of the haze, as well as their subsequent denials, you could hardly be blamed.

If the companies accused say they are not behind the fires, who is?

Some media reports and non-government organisations (NGOs) have spelled out clearly what needs to be done by governments, corporations, as well as consumers to prevent the haze from occurring annually. This includes Indonesia ratifying the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution and enforcing its laws.

An essential — and highly achievable — first step forward is for companies to regularly disclose all their concession areas and geographical coordinates, so that the information can be overlaid with satellite images of hot spots for current and future burning seasons.

Since the names of companies under investigation emerged, some major palm oil and pulp companies have publicly stated their no-burn policies and noted the presence of fire management programmes and efforts to assist in fire-fighting.

But none have volunteered detailed information of their concession areas to enlighten NGO watchdogs and the public.

FAR MORE INFO NEEDED

In the absence of up-to-date, comprehensive information, organisations such as Greenpeace, WWF and the World Resources Institute (WRI) have utilised the best-available data. Over half of Riau province’s fire alerts occurring between June 12 and 23 were in concession areas, the WRI found.

It noted in a June 24 Insight article that “concession maps for 2013 are still not available to the public and cannot be accessed freely online. This and other data, such as details on company ownership, would strengthen the ability of groups working on this issue to conduct analysis, including the Indonesian government”.

Singapore-listed First Resources has indicated its willingness to help establish facts, saying on Sunday that it “welcomes and will provide assistance to any party who wishes to confirm information pertaining to its plantations and concessions”.

This is more than what some others are doing — but it is not enough. Companies need to disclose much more, if we are to move beyond the current stalemate of finger-pointing and better investigate future episodes of burning.

Maps of forestry, timber and oil palm concessions; how they overlay with forest and peatland areas (especially peat areas deeper than 3 metres, which are illegal to develop) and the distribution of hot spots when they occur, as well as information on fire risk and weather conditions should be made available by the Indonesian government on its websites, said Professor Luca Tacconi, Director of the Asia Pacific Network for Environmental Governance.

The Indonesian government should also publish records of companies on whose concessions fires have occurred, the actions taken and their outcomes, Prof Tacconi told TODAY.

LEGISLATE DISCLOSURE?

On its part, Singapore can legislate the disclosure of concession areas, as well as land-clearing and planting practices by firms, as part of its stock exchange-listing requirements, said Professor Alan Tan Khee Jin, executive committee member of the Asia Pacific Centre for Environmental Law.

At least seven companies with palm oil operations in Indonesia are listed in Singapore, including major players like Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources.

The path to greater disclosure may not be easy, however.

Concessions and their boundaries are extremely ill-defined in Indonesia and, often, companies “do not know for certain (nor do they care) where the boundaries are”, said Prof Tan. The land could also be subject to overlapping rights such as community lands and protected areas.

In the confusion, local governments tend to award concessions to large companies without regard to existing occupants, he said. Fires could be set by farmers doing slash-and-burn or out of anger, with companies retaliating in similar fashion, he noted.

It is also inaccurate to assume companies with the concessions own their lands and have control over them, said Prof Tan. The term “concession” could mean no more than a right to purchase the oil palm harvest from local farmers at a pre-determined price, with firms sub-contracting clearing of land and planting to the locals.

“In such circumstances, the companies can claim they have no role in the burnings, and the involvement of powerful and corrupt local leaders often results in little or zero enforcement of anti-burning laws,” he said.

Under Indonesian law, any company or person guilty of an illegal forest fire could be jailed up to 10 years and fined up to 5 billion rupiah (S$640,000).

COMPANIES OWE IT TO LOCALS

The challenges are real, but they should not derail any disclosure of information. Companies could report concession zones with caveats on areas that are unclear or ill-defined, for example.

Also, given how some companies have stated that no fires have been detected in their operating areas, the logical assumption is that they are clear what their operating areas are.

One of the purported benefits of palm oil plantations is the provision of jobs and livelihoods to local communities. But when we drove last week through some areas blanketed with smog and close to massive plantations that had been burnt in Riau province, villagers — including children — without face masks were a common sight.

There was no respite for them, no air-conditioned space to escape to. I could only imagine the respiratory and other illnesses that could afflict them through prolonged exposure to the fumes.

The companies owe it to local communities to do better. Greater disclosure could also help consumers around the world to equip themselves with information to make the right choices.

Tackling the haze effectively will be complex and almost certainly long-drawn. But for a start, companies, perhaps with prodding by the authorities, must be more accountable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Neo Chai Chin is a senior reporter with TODAY who reports on the environment. She spent five days in Riau recently to cover the hot spots and fire-fighting efforts.

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