To fight haze, step up certification of palm oil firms

TAN YI HAN Today Online 22 Apr 16;

When Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya was reported as telling Singapore to “focus on its own role in addressing” the transboundary haze instead of “commenting too much on the part Indonesia is currently playing”, it unsurprisingly led to angry rebuttals by readers in Singapore.

Yet, such finger-pointing has not done anything to resolve an issue which has affected the region for years. The 2015 haze cost Singapore an estimated S$700 million, and affected many people. One of our volunteer’s 4-year-old son contracted a nose infection, causing his nose to bleed non-stop. His mother had to take the whole family overseas. The moment they left Singapore, the bleeding stopped.

Clearly, it would be wiser for all parties to rise above the bickering and look at how we can address the issue.

Palm oil has often been blamed for contributing to the haze problem. In 2015, while oil palm concessions occupied 3.5 per cent of Indonesia’s land area, they accounted for 10 per cent of the hot spots. Yet, while steps have rightly been taken to identify sustainable sources of paper, little has been mentioned about how we can ensure the palm oil we buy is not contributing to the haze.

Part of the reason could be how palm oil has been under the radar of consumers, hidden under labels like “vegetable oil” or sodium laureth sulfate, a widely used and inexpensive chemical found in many mainstream personal hygiene products.

But with people suffering and even dying from the haze, we need to ask how companies in Singapore can help clean up our air by cleaning up their palm oil?

Oil palm yields at least eight times more oil than other types of oil crops, so switching to other sources of vegetable oil, without changing the destructive practices, may lead to eight times more deforestation and fire.

Fortunately, oil palm can be grown in a haze-free manner. First, to prevent fire from starting, land should be cleared without burning and land conflicts should be minimised so that fire would not be used as a weapon. Next, deforestation and peat drainage should be avoided so that fire-prone landscapes are not created. Finally, fires should be detected and stopped early.

Do any palm oil growers follow these principles? Even if they claim to do so, how can we verify their claims? One way would be to make use of existing certification standards. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification is probably the only widely-available source of certified palm oil for consumer products and food, with 21 per cent of world’s palm oil being certified by RSPO.

In 2015, only 3 per cent of hotspots on palm oil concessions were found on RSPO-certified concessions, even though RSPO-certified areas represented 14 per cent of the palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

In terms of its certification principles and criteria, RSPO generally prohibits the use of fire and has rules on respecting land rights of local people. There is also some protection for forests and peat swamps although this is limited to primary forests and high-conservation value secondary forests, and a prohibition on “extensive” planting on peatland.

While there have been shortcomings in the audit process, RSPO’s willingness to improve its systems and punish errant members gives us hope. Just last month, IOI, one of the biggest palm oil suppliers in the world, was suspended by RSPO after non-governmental organisations caught three of its subsidiaries violating RSPO’s standards. The suspension created a domino effect as many of its customers terminated contracts with IOI and its share price dropped more than 10 per cent. Indeed, the extra scrutiny on RSPO members may be one of the biggest benefits of certification.

Could cost be a barrier for buying certified palm oil? Surprisingly, information from various sources have revealed that the additional cost of RSPO-certified palm oil is no more than 6 Singapore cents per litre.

Indeed, many global companies are moving towards buying 100 per cent RSPO-certified palm oil and are even committing to source from more stringent “zero-fire, zero-deforestation, zero-peat and zero-exploitation” standards such as RSPO-Next.

Meanwhile, none of Singapore’s retailers and consumer goods manufacturers – except for one (Aalst Chocolate) – are RSPO members.

It is time for companies in Singapore that buy palm oil such as food outlets, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, to start by at least committing to go haze-free.

Consumers can then play a part by supporting these responsible companies. We all can play our part to make Singapore haze-free.


Tan Yi Han is from PM.Haze (People’s Movement to Stop Haze) which is holding a People’s Forum on Haze on April 23 at SIM University, with panel discussions on the causes of and solutions to haze.

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