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Who takes the blame for the haze?

RIAU — Half of the hotspots that are leaving Singapore and Malaysia shrouded in haze are in areas that should be protected by Indonesia’s moratorium on forest land, findings by environmental group Greenpeace showed yesterday.

RIAU — Half of the hotspots that are leaving Singapore and Malaysia shrouded in haze are in areas that should be protected by Indonesia’s moratorium on forest land, findings by environmental group Greenpeace showed yesterday.

The hotspots were detected between June 11 and 18. This shows how poorly forest protection measures are being enforced, Greenpeace South-east Asia’s Forest Campaigner Yuyun Indradi said yesterday.

But the group also said lack of updated data and transparency creates confusion over which forests are protected under the moratorium, extended for two years last month by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to prevent new clearing of primary forests and peatlands.

Based on best available data, the moratorium overlaps with 5.5 million hectares of concession areas that have been granted to pulp, palm oil or mining companies, Greenpeace said.

Aerial images of hotspots overlaid with a palm oil concession map released by Greenpeace yesterday also showed burning taking place on concession land of the subsidiary of a Singapore-listed firm, First Resources.

Responding to queries, a company spokesperson said it had long relinquished concession rights to the area in question. Its subsidiary PT Surya Dumai Agrindo did not develop palm oil plantations in the area as the land was unsuitable. “The permit expired and the concession area was returned to the Ministry of Forestry in 1999. First Resources does not manage any oil palm plantation nor has any unplanted land bank in this area currently,” said a First Resources spokesperson.

“We also wish to reiterate that we have a zero-burning policy and so far there have not been any fire incidents reported at our plantations,” the spokesperson added.

Not always easy to pinpoint responsibility

Non-government organisations (NGOs) told TODAY about complexities in concession licences and practices on the ground. Concession areas are areas where permission has been granted to pulp, palm oil or mining companies to conduct their activities.

The boundary between concession and non-concession land can be unclear, said Eyes on the Forest Editor Afdhal Mahyuddin, who handles external communication at WWF Indonesia’s Pekanbaru office. Many hotspots are sited outside concession areas, and fires ignited outside concession areas can spread to concession zones, especially on peatland. “Concession areas may also not be very well-protected and anybody can go there, including to set forest fires,” he said.

However, the NGOs also said some big palm oil companies pay members of the local community to clear land by burning — the cheapest way to do so. It costs about 9 million rupiah (S$1,100) a day to deploy heavy machinery to clear land mechanically and only a few thousand rupiah to burn with kerosene and a lighter, said WWF Indonesia’s Riau Programme Manager Suhandri.

Despite some grey areas, Greenpeace’s Riau Media Campaigner Zamzami believes companies must take responsibility to protect their land.

Mr Zamzami and NGO network Jikalahari’s coordinator Muslim said environmental groups have been monitoring hotspots, doing field investigations and publishing their findings via the media. The groups also try to highlight the link between plantation companies and companies like food manufacturers that purchase from them, said Mr Muslim.

Besides naming culprits behind the fires and enforcement by the local authorities, countries — including Singapore and Malaysia — can push their companies to do the right thing, he said. The food sectors of countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, have pledged that all palm oil designated for their markets be sustainable by 2015, for instance.

Asked why NGOs do not directly engage errant companies more, Mr Zamzami cited the vast number of companies and the authorities’ role in enforcement. He added: “We won’t negotiate with (the companies) because it’s clear what they have to do.”

Yesterday, a moderate haze shrouded Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, with a public signboard showing PM10 — airborne particulates less than 10 microns in diameter — levels to be unhealthy. According to the NGOs, schools in Dumai and Duri sub-districts in Bengkalis were ending the school day early due to the haze situation. None of the Pekanbaru residents TODAY approached knew what the air quality index level was. Some donned masks to protect themselves, but several said the locals were largely used to the recurrent haze.

The burning got too close for comfort for Parit Indah resident Mohamed Azaki, 45, however — fire at a shrub-filled patch of private land had spread to within 10 metres of his home, with the winds blowing smoke and ash towards his house. The weak stream of water from his hose was barely able to dampen small patches of smoldering land. And he did not know who or what had started the fire. Somewhat resigned, the father of two said he had called the fire department but added that only the rain could put out the fire.

“The problem is there’s not much rain,” said WWF’s Mr Afdhal. He urged all stakeholders — companies, consumers and countries in the region — to pitch in. “Nature has no nationality, we should work together.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVID BOTTOMLEY

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