Singapore Pressures Indonesia to Identify Firms behind Haze

By Kevin Lim 19 June 2013

SINGAPORE — Singapore’s worst air pollution in 16 years sparked diplomatic tension on Tuesday, as the city-state urged Indonesia to provide data on company names and concession maps to enable it to act against plantation firms that allow slash-and-burn farming.

Singapore’s environment minister made the request to his Indonesian counterpart by telephone as air pollution on the island hit unhealthy levels for a second straight day, with some of the worst readings since a 1997 regional haze crisis.

“We need to exert commercial pressure against companies causing the haze,” Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on his Facebook page, without saying what measures Singapore might take.

“We are also waiting for Indonesia to publish the concession maps. The combination of satellite photos, which are updated daily, and these concession maps would enable us to pinpoint the errant companies,” he added.

Indonesia’s environment minister could not be reached for comment, but senior official Sony Partono told Reuters, “Foreign parties should not be interfering with our domestic affairs.”

He added, “The most important thing is that we have attempted to control the damage resulting from the forest fires,” and said fire trucks had been dispatched to affected areas.

Plantation companies with land concessions in Indonesia include Wilmar International Ltd, Golden Agri-Resources Ltd and First Resources Ltd.

Singapore’s pollutant standards index (PSI) rose to an unhealthy 155 on Monday night, prompting the US Embassy to advise Americans planning a visit to consult their doctors about the effects of air pollution.

Visibility improved slightly on Tuesday and the PSI score slipped back to a “moderate” level of 85 after peaking at 123 in the morning.

A map on the site of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) Specialized Meteorological Center showed dozens of satellite-detected fires on Sumatra island on Tuesday with winds blowing east toward Singapore.

The haze has also enveloped some parts of neighboring Malaysia, with four regions suffering “unhealthy” PSI levels above 100 for a second day.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took to his Twitter page on Tuesday to advise people to reduce outdoor activities and drink plenty of water, warning that the haze was expected to worsen.

Images of smog-shrouded Southeast Asian cities this week have highlighted the limited progress the region has made in fighting the problem since 1997, when the haze caused an estimated $9 billion in economic, social and environmental losses.

The illegal burning of forests to clear land for palm oil plantations is a recurrent problem in Indonesia, particularly during the annual dry season from June to September. Yet Indonesia is the only Asean member not to have ratified a 2002 pact on preventing haze pollution.

“Without the [Indonesian] republic, especially since the hotspots are found mainly there, little can be done,” Malaysia’s New Straits Times said in an editorial on Tuesday.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has vastly expanded its palm oil plantations in the past decade, overtaking Malaysia to become the world’s biggest supplier. In doing so, it has cleared huge swathes of forest and peatland areas.

Corruption and Indonesia’s decentralized political system have hindered efforts to stem the haze problem, said Jackson Ewing, a researcher at the Center for Non-Traditional Security at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Burning is quick, efficient and requires very little labor to clear land,” he said.

“Government actors at the local level are colluding with private interests and central government authorities have difficulty influencing what is happening on the ground.”

Additional reporting by Dhea Renaldi in Jakarta and Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur.