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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Due to continuing Indonesia fires and air pollution, Singapore Green Label certification temporarily halted on products by Asia Pulp and Paper. Firefighting aircraft help sought from Russia and Japan-NY Times

10/8/15, "Southeast Asia, Choking on Haze, Struggles for a Solution," NY Times, Joe Cochrane

"Fires set in Sumatra and the Indonesian side of Borneo blanket parts of Southeast Asia with smoke for weeks. While this has been going on for decades, an especially long dry season this year coupled with the effects of El Niño, threaten to make it the worst on record, scientists say.

Around the region, flights have been grounded, schools have been closed, and tens of thousands of people have sought medical treatment for respiratory problems, allergies, eczema and other ailments. The first night of an international sports competition, the FINA Swimming World Cup, set for last Saturday and hosted by Singapore, was canceled because of health concerns — as was a marathon in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia capital, set to  be run the next morning.

The slash-and-burn techniques used in Indonesia’s palm oil industry are continuing unabated, and there is no magic bullet for ending the practice — or the haze it causes — in the short term.

Finding the long-term solution requires reducing agriculture in Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatland, curtailing slash-and-burn methods for clearing land and halting the conversions of forests to agricultural uses including palm oil, said Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research, a global scientific organization with its headquarters in Bogor, Indonesia.

Fire is the most cost-effective way of clearing, which is why it is done,” he said.

Finding a permanent solution is daunting enough, but more than a month into the crisis, it seems that the region cannot curb the haze in the short term.
Indonesia says that its military personnel are battling more than 1,000 forest-fire clusters, while Greenpeace says that figure does not include fires that started aboveground on peatland and are now burning out of control.

Up until Wednesday, Indonesia had rebuffed offers by neighbors to help it battle the blazes and had even admonished Singaporean and Malaysian leaders for daring to complain about the haze.

On Thursday, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia said his government had requested “help and assistance” the day before from Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Russia and Japan, in getting the peatland fires under control, according to a statement released by his cabinet secretariat.
Mr. Joko said his government had specifically requested firefighting aircraft with a water-carrying capacity of 12 to 15 tons, saying that Indonesian planes currently fighting the blazes have carrying capacities of between two and three tons.

The aid request seemed to reflect a new seriousness from the Indonesian government.

Late last month, the country’s outspoken vice president, Jusuf Kalla, repeated a statement he made earlier in the year in which he said that neighboring countries “should be grateful” to Indonesia for the clean air they have the other 11 months of the year.

During the 2013 haze crisis, Agung Laksono, a senior Indonesian cabinet minister at the time, compared Singaporean leaders to a child having a temper tantrum after they complained about the impact that thick haze was having on tourism, which is a major contributor to Singapore’s economy.

“It’s like a blame game,” said Bustar Maitar, global leader of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace.

“Of course all the fires are coming from Indonesia, but Singapore is enjoying the ‘deforestation economy’ of Indonesia as a financial center,” he said, “and there are many Malaysian palm oil companies operating in Indonesia, and Singaporean companies are there as well.”

Ultimately, Mr. Maitar said, the cycle will continue until rain forest deforestation is severely curtailed in Indonesia, where it remains rampant, and the Indonesian government bans the draining and clearing of peatland for agricultural use. Currently, Indonesian government policy allows peatland of less than about nine feet deep to be cleared....
On Wednesday, NTUC FairPrice, Singapore’s largest supermarket chain, released a statement saying it had pulled from its shelves toilet paper and other products sourced from Indonesia’s Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies.

The supermarket said it had made the move “following notification from the Singapore Environment Council that it has instituted a temporary restriction on the use of the 'Singapore Green Label' certification for A.P.P. products,” the statement said.

On Monday, the council had released a statement saying that it took action after an Asia Pulp and Paper subsidiary was “one of five companies named by the National Environment Agency (NEA) suspected to be contributing to the haze pollution.”
Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability for Asia Pulp and Paper, said in a statement on Thursday that the company was “firmly against” the intentional setting of forest fires and would disengage from any supplier proven guilty of illegally starting one.
“We understand why FairPrice feels the need to take urgent action and we feel the same urgency also in addressing this haze issue, but accuracy is just as important,” she said. “The fire situation is complex, and both the Singapore and Indonesia governments, and authorities are still investigating the situation.”
Ang Peng Hwa, a university professor and founder of an antihaze activist group in Singapore, is promoting an American model for dealing with environmental negligence: suing those responsible, using a law passed by the Singaporean Parliament in 2014.
Mr. Ang noted that under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, Singapore-listed companies involved in illegal land clearance in Indonesia can be sued in civil court for causing financial losses to businesses and individuals.
People have been coming forward to say that they have lost business because of the haze, Mr. Ang said. The prospective plaintiffs include a sporting events company and a sports training academy, though no lawsuits have yet been filed under the new law.
Possible injured parties include upscale hotels that suffer canceled bookings during haze periods and the organizers of the annual F1 Singapore Grand Prix. The F1 race was held on Sept. 20 despite concerns about air quality.
The problem, Mr. Ang said, is that it is very difficult to determine liability because “there are layers that protect ultimate owners of companies.” Yet, he said, the fact that some people have already come forward asking about financial compensation for haze through Singapore’s courts leads to an inescapable conclusion that should concern governments around the region. “People are getting more angry, more worked up.”
Whether that anger will lead to more lasting change is yet to be seen. Mr. Ang is not optimistic. “They burn for a period, everyone gets upset, and then people forget,” he said of the fires."

Image caption: "A fire being extinguished on peatland and fields in the province of South Sumatra in Indonesia. Credit Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images"

"Asean, which provides a forum for the region’s diplomatic relations, was formed on principles of national sovereignty and nonintervention--an approach that none of its members are keen to upset."

10/1/15, "Southeast Asia’s Hazy Future," NY Times Op-ed, Tash Aw
"For the last two decades, a cloud of pollution has drifted over the region at this time of year, causing billions of dollars’ worth of disruption. The smoke originates in Indonesia, where large corporations and small landowners alike take advantage of the dry season to clear the land of forest and crops to make way for paper production or palm oil plantations.

The crude, cheap slash-and-burn method they employ has disastrous consequences over large areas, igniting peat in the soil to create fires that burn steadily over long periods. This year, weather patterns associated with the El Niño system produced unusually dry conditions, exacerbating the haze-producing fires.

That the haze affects millions in Indonesia is bad enough; but Sumatra, where the worst of the fires occur, is a mere 40 miles across the Strait of Malacca from the Malaysian Peninsula and Singapore, while Kalimantan, the other principal source of the smoke, shares a 1,200-mile land border with Malaysia. The resulting “transboundary haze,” as it is known, has placed mounting pressure on the Indonesian government to devise a long-term solution. And it has exposed the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to cooperate on cross-border issues that originate in one member state.
At a recent Asean meeting in Kuala Lumpur, an Indonesian member of Parliament in charge of international relations and environmental affairs issued a formal apology to Malaysia and Singapore for this year’s disruption. 

This echoed previous apologies made by Indonesian leaders, notably the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s following the record-breaking 2013 haze.

For many Malaysians and Singaporeans, these mea culpas ring hollow, given the continued absence of any concrete countermeasures. Malaysia’s air pollution index assigns scores to common pollutant gases and particulate matter based on their concentrations in the atmosphere, and then gives an aggregate reading: A level of 101 to 200 is considered “unhealthy,” 201 to 300 “very unhealthy,” and over 301 “hazardous.” In September, the index in some parts of the country persisted above the 200 mark. In Singapore, readings peaked at 341, at one point casting doubt over whether the Grand Prix — including outdoor concerts by Maroon 5 and Bon Jovi — could go ahead.

Such jitters are not without a basis: In 2013, when air pollution levels in Singapore passed the 400 mark and the neighboring Johor State of Malaysia recorded a level of more than 700, the Singapore government estimated that increased spending on health care, together with disruption to air and maritime traffic, cost its economy $1 billion per week.

The blame, according to regional observers, lies in Indonesia’s failure to rein in the powerful corporations that run the increasingly lucrative palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Rising worldwide consumption and booming prices have made the commodity a major contributor to the Indonesian economy — representing, by 2012, about 11 percent of the country’s export earnings, second only to oil and gas. Despite harsh penalties for those who break the strict land-clearing laws, there have been few successful prosecutions — which critics attribute to the plantation companies’ strong political connections....

Much of the frustration felt in Malaysia and Singapore lies in the lack of institutional means to force Indonesia’s hand. Asean, which provides a forum for the region’s diplomatic relations, was formed on principles of national sovereignty and nonintervention--an approach that none of its members are keen to upset.
There was a small measure of progress last month when Indonesia agreed to share with Singapore a list of individuals and companies under investigation. This would at least enable Singapore to make checks on any that also operate within its jurisdiction.

Although there are no specific details yet, Malaysian and Indonesian officials have agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining measures to deal with the fires in the future. Asean’s Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, created in 2002, was ratified by Indonesia only last year; its wording does not confer on Asean any powers of enforcement. Last month, Jakarta again refused help from the Singaporean government in fighting the fires.

While the political tussles continue, Indonesia remains the worst victim of its fires, with pollution readings reaching a record high of 984 in the central province of Riau, where 26,000 cases of acute respiratory ailments have been recorded this season. As always during the haze, thousands of army and police personnel were sent in to combat the fires, and cloud-seeding operations were tried. But much like the skies overhead, the political way ahead for the region remains murky."



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