The Wall Street Journal – Just when it seemed safe to take a deep breath in Southeast Asia, the smoky haze that envelops the region each year is wafting up from Indonesian forests again.
Increasingly, though, experts aren’t just blaming Indonesians, who in the past have been accused of recklessly burning forest land on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan to make way for palm oil plantations – a practice that produces the smoke that then drifts northward over Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesian authorities have typically said they are doing their best to police the problem, which is hard to do given the country’s vast size and limited enforcement resources.
The question is whether other actors are fanning the flames, says Anthony Tan, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology & Development, Malaysia (CETDEM).
“The haze comes from Sumatra and Kalimanthan. Which companies own the estates? Malaysian and Singaporean as well as local plantation owners,” he said. As a result, “Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Indonesia also have to bear the responsibility of open burning, of slashing and burning, that is happening within their estate territories.”
Moreover, he added, “it is the respective governments’ responsibility to take them to task. Just because they operate in a foreign country, they can’t wash their hands and say it does not affect us” when it actually does.
The issue is flaring up again because the smoke, which tends to appear at least once a year, is intensifying again.
According to Malaysia’s Department of Environment, satellite images show the number of “hotspots” producing smoke in Sumatra increased to 122 on June 13 from 67 the day before. The image also showed haze drifting from Riau in central Sumatra en route towards the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Satellite images released by the Asean Specialized Meteorological Centre on June 18 June showed hotspots in Sumatra had risen further to 310 from 163 the previous day.
Malaysia’s DOE also said that on the morning of June 15th, air quality readings in three areas reached an unhealthy level of 131. Air quality readings improved by Monday, June 18.
In Malaysia, at least, authorities agree that it’s not entirely Indonesia’s fault, and they say they are doing what they can to help alleviate the situation, including reducing burning within Malaysia’s own borders. The DOE has imposed a temporary ban on open burning in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor except for religious purposes and barbecues with a fine up to RM500,000 or imprisonment of up to five years or both.
Still, “from the trend of hotspots monitored through satellite imagery, it has always and clearly shown that most of the hotspots originated from Indonesia and (then) the smoke plumes trespass the neighboring countries,” a DOE official said in a written response.
That doesn’t necessarily address the issue of Malaysian companies operating in Indonesia, though. According to Indonesia’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, as much as 25% of the palm oil plantations in the archipelago nation are owned by Malaysian companies. This is largely because scarcity of land in Malaysia has forced big plantation companies there to expand abroad.
Many of Malaysia’s biggest palm oil companies, including Sime Darby Bhd., IOI Corp. Bhd. and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd., are members of the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is dedicated to making palm oil production more environmentally-friendly, and which has a zero burning policy. Its members must be certified by RSPO as responsible producers. Moreover, many analysts say they doubt many of the biggest companies would want to engage in burning because it could be too detrimental to their reputations.
But last year, the London based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its Indonesian partner Telapak said they had documentary proof that KLK subsidiary PT Menteng Jaya Sawit Perdana was burning land. KLK denied the accusations. In a statement, plantation director Roy Lim said “KLK has long abandoned using fire to clear land for new planting or replanting. Our policy and practice is zero burning for such activities.”
Whatever the case, Indonesian officials say it’s hard to police an industry that covers so much terrain and they suspect some other producers might be burning land, or buying land from farmers who burn the trees themselves.
“Of course we don’t know who does it,” said Suryana Sastradiredja, an Information, Social and Cultural Affairs Minister-Counselor at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur. But it’s hardly surprising some land owners would want to set fires, he says. After all, “burning is the traditional method – the cheapest way to open new land.”
- Haze Over Malaysia Points to a Regional Problem (nytimes.com)
- Fires in Indonesia Threaten the Citizens of Kuala Lumpur (news.softpedia.com)
- Smokey Haze from Indonesian Fires Engulf Southeast Asia (nytimes.com)
- Haze returns to Malaysia (newsinfo.inquirer.net)