Singapore, Malaysia share some blame for haze: Indonesian official

Devianti Faridz Channel NewsAsia 18 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: An Indonesian official said Singapore and Malaysia share some of blame for the haze that has raised air pollution to "unhealthy" levels. The accusation was levelled at Singapore and Malaysian palm oil companies which he said also use the "slash and burn" method of clearing land.

Hadi Daryanto, who is the secretary-general of Indonesia's Forestry Ministry, has been quoted in a newspaper as saying that the "slash and burn" technique being used is the cheapest land clearing method but it is not only used by local farmers.

He said that employees of palm oil investors, including those from Singapore and Malaysian companies, also use this method.

Thus, he is asking also the Singapore and Malaysian companies to pay more attention to what is being done on the ground -- their farmers using this illegal "slash and burn" technique.

The haze from forest and peat land fires in Riau province are covering areas like Bengkalis, Dumai and Pekanbaru.

It has also disrupted flight schedules. In Dumai, municipality flight schedules at the Pinang Kampai Airport have been affected. Thick haze has hampered visibility -- which has been recorded at around 500 to 800 metres, posing a risk for flights.

The Dumai health office has also begun distributing over 50,000 masks for free to local residents.

The illegal clearing of forests by burning is a recurrent problem in Indonesia, particularly during the annual dry season that stretches from around June to September. This year, the haze came from forest and peat land fires in Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir Regencies.

The Bengkalis Disaster Mitigation Agency has said nearly 600 hectares of oil palm plantation and rubber plantation areas in three areas -- Sepahat, Tanjung Leban, Bukit Kerikil -- are currently burning.

Firefighters from a number of plantation companies, including local residents, are making efforts to extinguish the fires. However, they are facing difficulties in controlling it because of water shortages and strong winds.

At least 138 hot spots are currently being monitored in Jambi, Riau and South Sumatra -- that is significantly up compared to less than 100 spots the week before.

- CNA/ac

Singapore, Indonesia tussle over haze problem
AFP Yahoo News 18 Jun 13;

Smog from forest fires in Indonesia stayed at unhealthy levels in Singapore on Tuesday as the two neighbours blamed each other for the seasonal problem.

Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index stood at 115 as offices opened -- still above the "unhealthy" threshold of 100 but down from the peak reached late Monday when the entire island was shrouded by a smoky haze.

Most commuters walked in bright sunshine on Tuesday without covering their faces despite the lingering smell of burnt wood in the business district.

The Ministry of Manpower has urged employers to issue protective masks to staff with heart and respiratory problems, and those working outdoors. The elderly and children have also been told to reduce strenuous outdoor activity.

The pollutant index soared to a peak of 155 late Monday, the highest since Southeast Asia's prolonged haze crisis in 1997-1998, but eased off overnight.

On Monday, Singapore urged Indonesia to take "urgent measures" to tackle its forest fires as smoke blown from Sumatra island choked the densely populated city-state as well as parts of Malaysia.

But the Indonesian forestry ministry said firefighters were already tackling the blazes and water-dropping aircraft would be deployed if local governors made a request.

A ministry official, Hadi Daryanto, also attempted to shift some of the blame onto Malaysia and Singapore, saying their palm oil companies that had invested in Indonesia were also responsible.

"The slash-and-burn technique being used is the cheapest land-clearing method and it is not only used by local farmers, but also employees of palm oil investors including Singaporean and Malaysian companies," he said.

"We hope the governments of Malaysia and Singapore will tell their investors to adopt proper measures so we can solve this problem together."

But Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for environment and water resources, kept up the pressure on Indonesia.

In remarks carried Tuesday by Singapore media, he said "commercial interests in Indonesia have been allowed to override environmental concerns."

He repeated an offer of help from Singapore, which has a modern military and civil defence system including firefighters.

The Singapore military came to Indonesia's aid after Aceh province was devastated by a tsunami in 2004.

Singapore pressures Indonesia to identify firms behind haze
Kevin Lim Reuters 18 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE | Tue Jun 18, 2013 6:37am EDT

(Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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 Centre showed dozens of satellite-detected fires on Sumatra island on Tuesday with winds blowing east towards 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.

HAZY PROGRESS

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 Centre 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; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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