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The haze: What governments must do – and what they can’t

23 Sep The haze: What governments must do – and what they can’t

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Environment Ministers meet this week in Jakarta to discuss the haze, there are reasons to doubt governments will address key issues decisively.

Cynics point out that the number of hot spots has again been growing in Sumatra. While some errant companies have been named, not a
one has been prosecuted.

Moreover, when the ministers last met in July in Kuala Lumpur, the Indonesian government declined to release concession maps that ascertain just who holds the lands that are on fire. Malaysia — second only to Indonesia in palm oil production — took a similar position.

More should be expected, given this year’s severe haze, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) spiking above 400 in Singapore and many parts of Malaysia. If not, given projections that palm oil plantations will continue to expand, the failure of governments will result in worse haze in the future.

While the issues are complex and multi­dimensional, governments can and should set the direction so thatlocal communities, non­government organisations and local and global industry players can play their part. To tackle the haze, governments must set the parameters of a multi­sector, multi­pronged strategy.


Already, even without government regulation, some industry players are looking for solutions. This was what key players from the palm oil industry claimed, at a panel discussion during the ASEAN and Asia Forum organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) earlier this month.

In the first public discussion on the haze since the 400 PSI episode in June, the panel disclosed that they are under pressure from consumers to ensure that their products are environmentally sustainable.

Unilever has taken steps to buy only certified palm oil, despite higher costs. Olam said it is able to trace and certify different commodities, and help local farmers understand the benefits of sustainable means of production. Standard Chartered Bank now screens its corporate borrowers on environmental parameters, such as credit and reputational risk.

Major palm oil producer Wilmar said it is putting in extra measures to respond quickly to fires that break out on its land holdings and outside its gates in adjoining areas. The company is also considering releasing its concession maps, but said it will not do this unless other major producers step forward similarly.

Other players are moving, too. During the SIIA’s recent visit to Jakarta, we learned that Greenpeace Indonesia — one of the strongest advocates of sustainable palm oil — is working with major producer Golden Agri to raise industry-wide standards on sustainability.

The environmental group tracks sustainability efforts by agricultural players such as palm oil and paper and pulp companies, and aims to enhance public awareness and use consumer pressure to improve corporate behaviour.

Greenpeace has criticised the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — which positions itself as the standard setter for the sector — for being ineffective. Its report released early this month in Europe claims that some 39 per cent of the Sumatran fires in June originated on lands held by RSPO members, despite its zero-burn policy.

There are parallel efforts to develop sustainability standards for Indonesian producers and, separately, those in Malaysia.

These national initiatives can help reach out to the millions of small-scale, local palm oil producers who have not joined or are unable to join the RSPO.

However, there are concerns that if different standards and certificates proliferate, confusion will arise and slow down the certification process.


Top on the ministers’ agenda this week should be to convince Indonesia to ratify the transboundary haze agreement since it remains the last ASEAN country yet to ratify the agreement.

Ratifying the agreement will be a strong demonstration of political will and commitment by Indonesia’s government at the highest level to enhance local enforcement against those responsible for forest fires. As Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono understands and has said, there are millions in the country’s provinces who suffer the problem first hand.

To show progress, the Indonesian government must work with the palm oil industry. A key step would be to ratchet up RSPO standards for large-scale palm oil producers, and bring smaller producers on board.

Consumers will then be able to make more informed choices, by buying products that use only certified sustainable palm oil.


For this to happen, however, both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments must release the land concession maps. These maps will show who is responsible for the hot spots — especially with the haze monitoring and satellite information that is already easily available.

Companies can then be held accountable when they fail to deal with fires, or else provide evidence that, while the fires occurred on their land, they were not of their doing.

Conversely, concession maps are critical for the traceability of palm oil to be reliable. Only then can consumer choice reward companies who are doing the right thing.

The recurrence of the haze has shone a spotlight on the need to balance economic growth with sustainability as Asia develops. A lot needs to be done in order to find that balance. But a first and key step can and should be taken by the ministers.

It would also be best timed to do so before the ASEAN Summit next month, when the leaders’ agenda is already overflowing with issues such as ASEAN integration and relationships with the major powers.

The haze is an issue that deserves attention, both as an immediate response to the situation this year, as well as a demonstration of ASEAN moving towards an economic community by 2015.

Citizens and corporations can play a major part in addressing the issue, but governments have to do what they can and should.


Simon Tay is Chairman and Chua Chin Wei a Deputy Director at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. The SIIA convened the ASEAN and Asia Forum on Sept 12 with a panel of palm oil industry players and related corporations, and is conferring with Indonesian and other non-government organisations on a future dialogue on the issue. The article was originally published in the TODAY newspaper, and reproduced in The Malaysian Insider on 23 September 2013.