The haze particles affecting Singapore are mostly carried by wind from large-scale fires in Indonesia. Such fires are common in Sumatra and Kalimantan, where lands are often cleared by fire for agriculture and industrial plantations, most commonly oil palm or pulp and paper plantations. The haze gets worse when the burning coincides with prolonged dry spells, and when fires spread onto peatlands that have been drained for agriculture.
In its pristine state, peatland is a swamp-like, water-logged habitat known as a peat swamp forest. It is covered with a thick layer of wet soil made up of dead and partially decaying organic matter (peat). Though peatland is an inhospitable environment in which most plants cannot grow, it also serves as an important habitat for many endangered plant and animal species, such as the orangutan, the tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros, and the proboscis monkey.
Peatland is a natural storehouse for carbon. Any disturbance to peatland, such as draining and burning, will lead to the escape of a significant amount of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.
A Sumatran tiger in captivity. Fires on peat swamp forests destroy the Sumatran tiger’s natural habitat – less than 400 individuals remain in the wild. Photo credit: Monika Betley/Wikimedia Commons
In its natural state, water-logged peatland is not prone to fire. But after it is drained in preparation for agriculture, the dried, carbon-rich peat soil catches fire easily. Fire on peatland spreads quickly. It can smoulder underground for days to months if dry weather persists, producing a huge amount of dense smoke as a result of incomplete combustion. Studies show that fires on peatland can contribute to as much as 90% of transboundary haze.
An oil palm plantation in Malaysia. Forests and peatland are often cleared to establish oil palm and pulp and paper plantations. Photo credit: Pizzaboy1/Wikimedia Commons
In Indonesia, slash-and-burn is legal when used by small-scale farmers, who typically own no more than 2 hectares of land. On the other hand, clearing more than 2 hectares of land by fire at any one point, by any single party, is illegal. Those found guilty can be fined and jailed.
While slash-and-burn is a traditional agricultural technique, it is important to stop this practice. Fires intended to clear only small areas of land can quickly spread and grow out of control. In addition, Indonesia and Malaysia now have commercial plantations that are many times the size of Singapore. If everyone clears land by fire, the choking haze will affect many people in the region.
Some plantation owners and farmers still opt for slash-and-burn though, as it is much cheaper to clear land with a lighter and kerosene than with mechanical tools. Many small-scale farmers have no choice but to use fire, as they are too poor to afford to use machines.
Peatland continues to smoulder underground even after vegetation has been completely burnt in an oil palm plantation in Rokan Hulu regency, Riau. Photo credit: Ifansasti/Greenpeace
Lack of capacity is a problem in huge countries such as Indonesia. The Indonesian government still lacks an accurate single map that shows land use for the entire country. Too many permits covering too vast an area of land have been issued to plantation owners, meaning that the local enforcement agencies can barely keep pace. Even within a single province, some areas are so remote and inaccessible that they are nearly impossible for the provincial government to monitor.
There is also the problem of ambiguous property rights. In Indonesia, provincial and district-level governments can act independently of the central authority in Jakarta in some areas of governance, such as the granting of forest conversion permits. Sometimes, local governments may issue a land permit that overlap with existing permits. This creates multiple owners for the same plot of land, making it possible for them to deflect responsibility should fires break out.
Once set, fires can spread quickly. This makes it difficult to identify and punish the perpetrator. As a result, many illegal burning cases are dropped due to lack of evidence. Some small-scale farmers also enter into profit-sharing agreements with large companies, through which farmers burn their land and allow companies to establish plantations on it afterwards.
Above all, many plantation owners are emboldened by lax enforcement, low conviction rates, and lenient sentences. But after the severe haze episode in 2015, the central government in Jakarta has shown much greater resolve in bringing those who conduct illegal burning to justice. There have been many more arrests and investigations, carried out under direct orders from President Joko Widodo. In August 2016, a plantation company received a record $110m fine for its illegal burning activities.
Children, the elderly and people with chronic respiratory diseases are most prone to the negative effects of haze, especially when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) soars into the unhealthy range (above 100). PSI measures the concentration levels of harmful air pollutants in the air, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, PM10 (particulate matter), and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter).
Short-term exposure to high levels of haze particles can lead to irritation of the eyes, nose and throat in healthy individuals. People who suffer from chronic heart or lung diseases such as asthma or heart failure may find their conditions worsened. In the long-term, studies have shown links between exposure to haze particles and a higher risk of chronic respiratory disease, reduced lung development, and heart attacks.
PM2.5 is the dominant class of pollutants during severe haze episodes. These particles are 20 to 30 times thinner than a strand of hair and are so fine that they can enter our lungs and bloodstream. A recent study has estimated that during 2015’s haze episode, an extra 100,000 deaths occurred in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore as a result of PM2.5 alone.
Downtown Singapore’s skyline shrouded in haze. Photo credit: SpLoT/Wikimedia Commons
Severe haze can lead to increased healthcare costs, reduced productivity and lost earnings. In Singapore, tourism is often the worst-hit sector, with those operating alfresco restaurants and outdoor attractions bearing the brunt of the losses. During 2015’s haze episode, Singapore suffered economic losses estimated at S$700 million, and was forced to cancel high-profile events such as a day of the FINA Swimming World Cup. In the 1997 – 1998 episode, Singapore’s losses were between US$163 and US$286 million, according to estimates by the Asian Development Bank.
Indonesia, the site of most of the large-scale forest and peat fires, has suffered much bigger losses. Reduced visibility from the hazardous smog has affected air and sea traffic, disrupting trade and business activity. Schools have been shut and affected residents have had to move into refugee centres. The World Bank estimated that during the 2015 haze episode, Indonesia’s losses exceeded US$16 billion, equal to 1.8% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
Indonesia also incurs economic losses as a result of the destruction of plantations by fire. The Indonesian government estimates that 2.6 million hectares of Indonesia’s land burned from June to October 2015, an area four and a half times the size of Bali. Government spending on cloud seeding, firefighting, and evacuation also amounts to a sizeable sum.
The issue of transboundary haze has at times strained otherwise cordial relations among affected ASEAN countries. In 2013 and again in 2015 – 2016, some finger-pointing ensued when Malaysia and Singapore were wreathed in choking haze that came from fires in Indonesia. Malaysia and Singapore blamed lax enforcement in Indonesia for the recurring haze. On the other hand, Indonesia said the plantation companies headquartered in Malaysia and Singapore were most likely guilty of slash-and-burn, and Indonesia’s Minister for Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, has advised Singapore to “focus on (its) own role” in stopping the haze.
Haze is a highly complex issue. Over the years, there has been a growing realisation that organisations at all levels of society – non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governments, and companies – need to cooperate in order to deal with the problem effectively.
Many intergovernmental initiatives have been launched at the ASEAN level since the 1990s to find solutions to the haze.
In 2014, Indonesia finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze. It was the last ASEAN country to do so. Though the Agreement was reached in 2002, it was only gradually ratified by ASEAN member states in subsequent years. Ratification means that the Agreement is now legally binding, and each ASEAN country commits to do its best to fulfill the terms of the Agreement.
The Agreement does not spell out the legal consequences for non-compliance, but Indonesia’s ratification still signals an important step forward, as it reflects its willingness to formally cooperate with other member states to fight haze. Read the text of the Agreement by clicking here.
Environment Ministers from the various ASEAN states join hands as a sign of cooperation. Photo credit: ASEAN Secretariat
Haze Monitoring System
In 2013, ASEAN leaders agreed to develop a joint haze monitoring system (HMS), which would allow the overlaying of thermal hotspots on satellite images and concession maps. This could have acted as a powerful deterrent against slash and burn. However, this has not yet been put to use as Malaysia remains reluctant to make its concession maps public.
Peatland Restoration Agency
Nazir Foead is sworn in as head of the Peatland Restoration Agency. Photo credit: Cabinet Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia
To improve coverage, Indonesia’s central government has enlisted the police and military to help fire-fighting efforts. President Jokowi has warned police and military officials that they may be sacked if they fail to control fires in their areas.
Indonesian President Jokowi joins members of the Sungai Tohor community in damming a peatland drainage canal on Tebing Tinggi island, North Sumatra. Photo credit: Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace
Moratoriums on Peatland and Oil Palm Plantations
President Jokowi has announced his intention to create a moratorium on oil palm plantations, which would ban further concessions for oil palm plantations from being issued to companies. This has not yet been made law, but the Ministry of Environment and Forests has already stopped giving out new oil palm concessions as of April 2016. In addition, President Jokowi has extended the existing peatland moratorium, which prevents new plantation concessions from being issued on peatland. He has also signaled an intention to strengthen the moratorium so it applies not just to new concessions, but also to concessions that have already been issued but have not yet been planted.
A large number of NGOs, from both within and outside Southeast Asia, have been lobbying against unsustainable practices in the agriculture and forestry sectors. Their agendas are varied, ranging from anti-deforestation and wildlife preservation to the protection of indigenous communities, but their campaigns have helped advance the fight against haze pollution. Some notable examples of their recent efforts:
A screenshot from the Global Forest Watch Fires tool, showing location of current hotspots and the prevailing wind direction in Singapore. Source: World Resources Institute
Recently, NGOs have begun joining forces to tackle deforestation and forest fires in what is called a “landscape approach”. NGOs have come to realise that if they only work on small areas of expertise, it will be difficult to solve a problem like haze, which has many overlapping causes and stakeholders. Through multi-stakeholder projects, NGOs each undertake one piece of a large project according to their area of specialty, while making sure their efforts are streamlined towards a common goal.
One such project is the KELOLA Sendang project, which aims to protect and restore rainforest, reduce fires and peat drainage, and achieve economic growth for the local community. In total, the KELOLA Sendang project covers an area of 1.6 million hectares. In order to achieve the project’s numerous goals, it is being implemented jointly by a multi-stakeholder consortium, including the Zoological Society of London, Deltares, Daemeter, Forest Peoples Programme, IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative, and SNV – The Netherlands Development Organisation.
Many plantation companies have made No Peat, No Deforestation, and No Exploitation commitments, beginning with palm oil giant Wilmar in December 2013. Under these commitments, plantation companies will not produce products that have been:
A clear contrast can be seen between natural rainforest (below) and forest that has been cleared for paper plantations (above). Photo credit: Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace
Some plantation companies have extended this commitment to include their entire supply chain, meaning that they will not handle any raw materials or processed products that do not meet these commitments. Many consumer goods manufacturing companies (such as Unilever and Mondelēz), retailers (such as Carrefour and IKEA), and food service companies (such as McDonald’s and Sodexo) have also committed to only sourcing products that comply with these commitments.
NGOs release regular reports to make sure companies are progressing towards achieving these commitments. One recent such report is the 2016 Palm Oil Buyers scorecard by WWF, which was released in September 2016.
Traceability is the cornerstone of any “No Peat, No Deforestation, No Exploitation” commitment. Without being able to trace where raw materials such as timber and palm oil fruit bunches come from, companies will not be able to ensure that their products meet the requirements commitments. A number of companies are making good progress on tracing their raw materials to specific mills. A few companies are very close to tracing their raw materials all the way back to the plantations where they originated.
A peat swamp in its natural state at Raja Muda Forest Reserve, Selangor, Malaysia. Photo credit: PM.Haze
In 2014, Singapore appointed an International Advisory Panel on Transboundary Pollution to advise on international law developments pertaining to cross-border pollution. It also passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which criminalises extra-territorial activities that contribute to haze pollution in Singapore. Civil suits can also be filed against the culprits by individuals who suffer income losses or poor health as a result of the haze.
Civil Society Efforts
After the severe haze spell in 1997, the the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and Singapore Environment Council (SEC) organised an international policy dialogue to seek solutions to the issue. The SIIA team continued with fact-finding trips to Indonesia, and hosted roundtables in Singapore to promote regular exchanges between academics and representatives from the NGOs and corporations. Beginning in 2014, the SIIA has hosted the annual Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources, and held its first public exhibition “Haze: Know it. Stop it”.
Photo credit: WWF-Singapore/Xcalibrephoto
In June 2016, a group of NGOs and private sector companies led by WWF Singapore launched the Singapore Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil to promote the uptake of certified sustainable palm oil in Singapore and the region. The five founding members of the Alliance are Unilever, Danone, Ayam Brand, IKEA, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.
Other Singapore NGOs which have been actively working on the haze issue include People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze), ASEAN CSR Network, and Relief.sg. WWF and PM.Haze are currently running their “#gohazefree” and “We Breathe What We Buy” campaigns to get restaurants and manufacturers to switch to sustainable palm oil. Click the “Act Now” button to find out more.
If PSI 401 was unacceptable to Singaporeans during the 2013 haze spell, how did residents living near the fires in Indonesia cope? Learn about the plight of these families in Riau, one of Indonesia’s worst-hit provinces in the video above. (Credit: Greenpeace Southeast Asia – Indonesia)
“We were scared that we might be trapped by fire, so we came here (to the refugee centre). We’ve been here for 9 days.” – Watini, farmer. Evacuees inside the tent at Tanjung Leban Evacuation Center. Fire ravaged over 3000 ha of land at Tanjung Leban Village in early 2014. Over 200 villagers were evacuated and several homes destroyed. (Credit: Andri Tambunan/Greenpeace Southeast Asia – Indonesia)
A truck carries villagers who wear masks to protect themselves from the air pollution. The truck passes through smoke rising from fires on recently cleared peatland in an oil palm plantation near Sontang village in Riau, Sumatra. (Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace Southeast Asia – Indonesia)
During the 2015 haze episode, the PSI reading in parts of Riau reached close to 1,000, and in Central Kalimantan, the PSI reading was close to 2,000. Such high levels of air pollution led to an increased incidence of breathing problems and respiratory disease. A recent study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia Universities estimated that 2015 haze incident could have caused an average of 100,000 extra deaths in Southeast Asia.
Watch the documentary, “No Smoke without Fire”, jointly produced by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Indonesian NGO Sawit Watch, to learn more about the severe impact of haze on the health of communities close to the fires.
The haze is caused by toxic smoke from fires raging in South-east Asia’s forests and peatlands, which are cleared for crops such as palm oil and paper trees. In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85% of the world’s palm oil, which is a key ingredient in many food products and cosmetics. You can make a difference by buying only products that contain sustainably produced palm oil and paper. You can also encourage your friends, colleagues, and favorite dining establishments to do the same.
Sign up for a regular mailing list about how you can fight haze at http://webreathewhatwebuy.com, and air your views with the hashtag #XtheHaze.
In a recent survey, PM.Haze discovered that 32 out of 33 popular Singapore restaurant chains use non-haze-free palm oil for cooking. We need your support to call on these restaurants to switch to sustainable, haze-free palm oil. Make your voice heard at http://pmhaze.org.
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has produced the Palm Oil Shopping Guide app to help consumers check which supermarket products are produced with sustainable palm oil. Either enter the product name or scan the product’s barcode to find out. Click to download the app for iPhone or Android.
WWF has produced a scorecard that ranks restaurants, supermarkets, consumer goods companies, and others on their progress towards sustainable palm oil. Click here to view the scorecard.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the world’s oldest and most widely-used certification for sustainably-produced paper and timber. Only buy paper products that have the FSC label on the packaging.