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Why sustainability is key to keeping the haze away

haze-mar2017-riau

03 Apr Why sustainability is key to keeping the haze away

By Simon Tay and Chen Chen Lee

The skies over Singapore in the past 12 months have mostly been free of haze pollution. This is a relief from the prolonged bouts of haze and extensive fires in 2015, and the record-high 400PSI that hit Singapore in 2013.

Efforts by the Joko Widodo administration in Indonesia to tackle the fires at source are one reason for the improvement. Wetter weather conditions have also played a major part in the good results. But the weather is changing, and not all for the better.

This year, experts predict the conditions will be drier than normal and fear that the extreme dry weather phenomenon called El Nino will return as early as July. Concerns arise, therefore, that severe fires will break out across plantation and forestry concessions across Indonesia, causing a return of the haze. Efforts to prevent that are being made. On Dec 1, Mr Widodo signed into law a blanket ban on the cultivation of carbon-rich peatland across the country.

In anticipation of dry conditions this year, Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) is already doubling up efforts to support the prevention of fires at the local and provincial level. BRG’s priority areas lie in Riau, South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, provinces which have experienced extensive drainage of peatlands, thereby increasing their susceptibility to fires. At the same time, the Singapore authorities continue to investigate a number of Indonesian-based companies for possible fires and haze in 2015.

Critically, the assistance from different levels of the Indonesian government will also be needed, particularly in cases where cooperation from companies is lacking.

More broadly, the need is to address the root of the problem by steering the value chain of agroforestry products towards greater sustainability.

It is not just dry weather that causes the haze. The haze is a terrible manifestation of various unsustainable practices that plague the plantation sectors across the region.

Small-scale growers are often reported to use fires for land clearance because they see little other choice. Many suffer low productivity and small margins, and also lack of access to the right machinery and financing.

Sustainability also goes beyond the environment — labour and social issues must be duly addressed. Recently, Singapore-listed company Wilmar International, which has committed to a ‘‘No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation’’ policy, was accused by Amnesty International of child labour and other labour abuses in Indonesia.

At around the same time, commodity trader Olam International came under fire for the alleged clearing of rainforests in Gabon. The pressure is growing for large agribusinesses to play an active role in addressing the environmental and social concerns on the ground or risk compromising their standing and profits.

The global value chain links back to the financial sector and the financiers behind some agroforestry companies have not been spared the spotlight.

Greenpeace has accused HSBC bank of financing companies that are allegedly responsible for forest destruction. In response, the bank in February issued a new ‘‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’’ policy to re-emphasise the strict conditions attached to financing of palm oil companies. Among others, HSBC customers will now have to commit to protect natural forest and peat by the end of June this year, and show evidence that these commitments have been independently verified by December 2018.

In fact, a broader and more important shift is under way. Different actors in the value chains who were previously part of the problem are now becoming part of the solution. A central pillar of this will be information and transparency. Banks and investors are increasingly integrating environmental, social and governance considerations in their due diligence, making corporate disclosure on sustainability issues more critical than ever to build trust and confidence.

Frameworks to facilitate such information disclosure are emerging. Last year, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures outlined a set of recommendations for voluntary and consistent climate-related disclosures, thereby helping companies to better align with investors’ expectations.

Similarly, a growing number of companies in the agroforestry sector are placing more emphasis on “traceability” so they can prove how they source their products to prefer the growers who adopt more sustainable practices. Technology is a key enabler for better information.

Increasingly, high-tech drones have been used to map and monitor land use and support the intensification of yields, especially in remote areas.

Mobile applications to collect farmer data are another innovation, allowing small-scale growers to make more informed decisions about their use of fertiliser and pesticide so that they too can move to both greater sustainability and productivity.

To help promote transparency and the adoption of best practices, non-governmental organisations (NGOs)and non-profit research institutions can play a critical role.

Dialogue across sectors is essential during this time of change in the policy and the priorities of the sector. Governments, large growers and their key customers and financiers need to be brought to the table together.

Equally important, gaps in the value chain need to be identified so that small-scale growers can participate and collaborate in the move towards sustainability, rather than oppose it.

Achieving sustainable value chains is clearly not the sole responsibility of any stakeholder and neither should it be. Instead, a concerted, collaborative effort founded on access to quality information is needed to prevent the haze and other crises from returning to the region.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Simon Tay and Chen Chen Lee are respectively, Chairman and Director (Policy Programs) at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). The SIIA is holding the 4th Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources on “Inclusive Collaboration: Working Together for Sustainable Value Chains” on Thursday. This commentary was published in TODAY on 3 April 2017. An earlier version was published in the Jakarta Post on 31 March 2017 under the title “From the haze to sustainability”. It also appeared in The Nation on 4 April 2017 under the title “As tinderbox SE Asia braces for haze, there’s hope on horizon”.

Photo Credit: Riau Land and Forest Fire Post’s air task force