Indonesia's Billionaires Are Feeling the Backlash For the Haze

Neerja Jetley Forbes 2 Dec 15;

Every fall in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra huge fires are set to clear land for timber operations and to plant palm oil trees. This sets off giant plumes of smoke that engulf the islands as well as nearby Singapore and much of Malaysia. And every fall the backlash against the recurring environmental disaster grows. This year’s thick haze was perhaps the worst since 1997, and the backlash included a boycott of an Indonesian company.

In October, at the height of the fire season, Singapore’s grocery-store chains NTUC FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket removed all Asia Pulp & Paper products from their shelves. And the Dairy Farm Group–which operates chains such as Guardian, 7-Eleven, Cold Storage and Giant–stopped restocking APP products, which include everything from tissues to notebooks. APP is part of Sinar Mas Group, led by Eka Tjipta Widjaja (No. 4).

The moves came after the Singapore Environment Council suspended its Green Label certificate for APP paper products, pending an investigation of APP’s alleged role in the fires. APP says it has a zero-burning policy for all suppliers and that 90% of the fires were occurring outside of its concessions. Satellite imagery indicated otherwise, and the Singapore government served notice on APP. The company responded that it had “nothing to hide” and that “no supplier had been proven to be involved.” It invited officials to visit its operations.

Widjaja has come under attack because of Sinar Mas’ huge palm oil plantations. The palm oil criticism has put several other Indonesian billionaires on the defensive, such as Sukanto Tanoto (No. 34) of Asian Agri; Martua Sitorus (No. 25), cofounder of the world’s largest palm oil trading company, Wilmar International ; and Ciliandra Fangiono (No. 21), who heads First Resources. All deny any involvement with the fires.

For now the haze has dissipated with the return of the rainy season, but next year some of the country’s billionaires will find themselves targeted again if the fires create another catastrophe. –Neerja Pawha Jetley

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