Weather may fix Singapore haze as Indonesia makes scant progress

Today Online 15 Jun 16;

JAKARTA — Indonesian officials don’t expect a repeat of the forest fires that cloaked South-east Asia in a thick haze last year, though that may be due more to favourable weather than progress in addressing the underlying causes of the blazes.

Satellite imagery showed 730 hotspots in the year to May, down from more than 2,900 in the first six months of last year, government data show. Last year’s fires raged out of control for months and unleashed smoke that closed airports and schools, for a time making Indonesia the world’s worst greenhouse gas polluter.

“We have integrated fire patrol teams deployed in the villages where forest fires are an annual occurrence,” said Mr Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, the Environment and Forestry Ministry official tasked with overseeing fire prevention. “Normally forest fires are quite rampant in February and March but there are no fires in villages where patrols are deployed.”

The smog has become an annual nuisance as the local practice of slash-and-burn farming is exacerbated by agribusiness companies that drain former swamp land to make way for palm oil, pulpwood and other plantations. Last year’s fires peaked in September and October, sending haze across Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Thailand as governments argued over who was to blame.


The pending haze “season” is a reminder of the lack of progress Indonesia has made in tackling root causes of the haze, including a murky system of land ownership and permits and graft at a local level. That’s even as President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has vowed to punish those responsible for setting the fires that the World Bank estimates caused at least US$16 billion (S$21.7 billion) in economic losses for Indonesia alone.

The government has set up village patrols, increased fire prevention requirements for plantation companies and is reviewing permits issued to those who operate in areas prone to fires, Mr Panjaitan said. Still, it hasn’t done enough to address the issue, said Mr Eduardo Mariz, an analyst with Concord Consulting in Jakarta.

Politics has played a “significant” part in that, he said. The country’s palm oil industry accounted for US$18.6 billion in exports in 2015, or about 2.1 per cent of gross domestic product.

“It is clearly in the interest of most people in Southeast Asia, including Indonesians, that plantation companies are discouraged from illegally starting fires,” Mr Mariz said. “But there appears to be a limit to what Jakarta is willing to do.”

Mr Widodo’s options are limited by a decentralised system of government put in place in 2001 that has focused power around local officials and made it harder to tackle corruption. There’s also been little effort made to address a complex system of overlapping land permits where forest is illegally burned to claim ownership.

Last year, Mr Widodo extended a moratorium on new palm plantations in fire prone areas and in April called for a ban on the expansion of existing plantations, saying the focus should be on increasing yields on current plots. There has yet to be progress on the ban. A spokesman for the president did not respond to a text message seeking comment.


Indonesia may get some help from the weather. Just as dry conditions from El Nino helped fuel last year’s blazes, the transition to a La Nina weather pattern and its heavy rains should help keep fires under control, said Mr Andi Eka Sakya, head of Indonesia’s Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics. A “wet dry season” is expected from July to September, he said.

Singapore, which aside from Indonesia has borne the brunt of annual haze, has been vocal in pushing Indonesia to take action against companies found burning forests. Its minister for the environment and water resources, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, said he’s “cautiously hopeful” that Indonesia’s efforts may curtail the haze this year.

“Either they have done something well, and it really has stopped, or the weather prevents it from happening,” Mr Masagos said in a recent interview. “It looks like the latter will be likely.”


One of the reasons Indonesia’s fires are so difficult to control lies just beneath the surface. Much of Sumatra has a thick canopy of trees that covers waterlogged peat soil. When this swamp land is drained for logging or plantations, the peat dries out and becomes the perfect fuel for smouldering fires.

In January, Mr Widodo set up the Peatland Restoration Agency. Headed by former World Wildlife Fund Indonesia conservation director Nazir Foead, the agency seeks to restore 2.6 million hectares of peatland over five years.

While that move was praised, Mr Teguh Surya, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia, said the government must also ban plantation businesses from peatlands. “These peatland areas never burned before they were turned into tinderboxes through drainage for industrial oil palm and pulpwood plantations,” Mr Surya said. “Steps such as village fire patrols will never solve the problem as long as drainage continues.”


Mr Panjaitan, of the environment ministry, pointed to new requirements for plantation companies to set up their own fire brigades, and to invest in technology such as drones, thermal cameras and CCTV. “There will be an audit on their compliance and we will give warnings if they don’t comply,” he said.

Indonesia Palm Oil Association Secretary General Togar Sitanggang questioned the requirement for fire fighting equipment, saying it could cost each plantation up to 5 billion rupiah (S$506,701), even small ones. Companies already have adequate equipment for fighting fires, he said, and blazes are normally started by local communities rather than corporations.

“We want to ask the government what do they want?” he said. “Do they want to burden the company?” BLOOMBERG

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Malaysia: RM30k worth of protected birds rescued from being sold online

EMBUN MAJID New Straits Times 14 Jun 16;

ALOR STAR: Protected birds worth RM30,000 which went on sale on social media were seized from a house in Kampung Sawa Kecil, Pendang on Monday.

The Kedah Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) carried out the raid following investigations into a Facebook page 'Geng Jual Beli Burung Penduduk Kedah' recently.

Its director Mohamad Hafid Rohani said, during the 3pm seizure, the department also arrested a 32-year-old man believed to be the seller. The seized birds are 12 Burung Mata Putih (Oriental White-eye), one Burung Serindit (Blue-crowned hanging parrot) and one Burung Merbah Luris Leher (Striped-throated bulbul).

"The Oriental white-eye and Blue-crowned hanging parrot are protected birds while the Striped-throated bulbul is a fully protected bird," he said in a statement today.

This was the second seizure of protected birds this month with the first made on June 1 in Jitra, he added.

He said the man was believed to be the owner of the Facebook page and had been actively promoting his activities on the page.

Hafid said for the offence of possessing protected bird, the man could face a maximum RM50,000 fine for each bird, a maximum two years' jail or both under Section 60 of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 (Act 716).

For possessing a fully protected bird, the man could face a maximum RM100,000 fine, a maximum three years' jail or both under Section 68 of the same Act.

Hafid added the man has been remanded for four days to facilitate investigations.

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Malaysia: Illegal logging cases in Sarawak drop by 13 per cent

GOH PEI PEI New Straits Times 14 Jun 16;

KUCHING: Illegal logging cases in Sarawak have dropped by 13 per cent, with 208 cases recorded last year, compared to 241 cases the year before.

A total of 90,873 cubic meters of timber logs were seized in 2014, while only 47,060 cubic meters were seized last year, said State Second Resource Planning and Environment Minister Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hasan.

As for the first five months of the year, 4,654 cubic meter of timber logs were seized in 46 raids.

Awang Tengah said the state government is serious in combating illegal logging activities in order to protect the flora and fauna as well as the state’s forests.

The efforts, he said, also led to the closure of 36 timber factories since two years ago, as they were found to be involved in processing illegal logs.

To date, four cases have been brought to court with 11 accused, seven jailed and four fined under various offences under the National Parks and Nature Reserves Ordinance, 1998 and Wildlife Protection Ordinance, 1998.

Delivering his winding up speech at the 18th State Legislative Assembly here today, Awang Tengah said the state government is continuing to enhance its operations and monitoring process by using advanced technologies such as drones, as well as hyperspectral and satellite imagery to ensure early detection of illegal activities.

“We want to make sure we can track them down before our forests are destroyed,” he said.

In addition, a total of 48 One Stop Compliance Centers (OSCC) have been set up throughout the state to better manage and monitor timber operators and ensure they comply with the rules and regulations.

“Of the total, 27 such centres are in full operation now,” he added.

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Indonesia: Firms responsible for 2015 fires go largely unpunished

Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 14 Jun 16;

Despite wreaking environmental havoc and causing more than US$16 billion in economic losses, hundreds of companies behind last year’s massive peatland and forest fires across Sumatra and Kalimantan have still not been held accountable for their negligence.

Recently, the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) released a list of 531 companies, mostly agroforestry companies, on whose concessions in peatland areas fires were reported and who thus had an obligation to restore their concessions.

The list only constitutes companies with concessions in peatland areas, therefore the total number of companies on whose lands fires occurred must greatly exceed 531.

However, only three civil lawsuit cases are being heard in courts at the moment with five more lawsuits still in the process. Civil lawsuits are handled by the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s law enforcement directorate-general.

As for criminal lawsuits, only four cases are on trial at the moment, with the dossiers on six cases currently incomplete while the dossiers on three other cases have been completed. Criminal lawsuits are handled by the police.

“We hope that the companies on the BRG’s list are not only held accountable for restoring their concessions, but there needs to be law enforcement as well against them because they failed to make sure that their concessions weren’t burned,” law researcher Syahrul Fitra, from the NGO Auriga, told The Jakarta Post.

Syahrul said that while the 531 companies on the BRG’s list were responsible for the restoration of areas that had been damaged by years of peatland fires, without law enforcement there would be no guarantee that they would actually carry out the restoration work.

“I’m not sure they will carry out the restoration. Maybe there will be administrative punishments, but even the government decided to revoke administrative punishments recently,” Syahrul said.

He was referring to the government’s decision to slap administrative sanctions on 23 companies last year.

These companies had their land-clearing licenses either revoked or frozen for their failure to act to prevent last year’s land and forest fires, which led to the worst pollution in the region for almost two decades.

The firms facing punishment were mostly pulp wood and palm oil plantations operating on Sumatra and Kalimantan. As a result, three companies shut down operations altogether.

However, the government decided to unfreeze the licenses for 17 companies recently, reasoning that they had improved their fire-prevention management on the ground.

“After this, they will have to give their burned concessions to the government. The ministry’s sustainable forest management directorate-general is currently mapping the burned concessions that will be taken over by the government to be restored and managed,” the ministry’s law enforcement director-general, Rasio Ridho Sani, told the Post.

Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) spokeswoman Khalisah Wahid said the sanction revocations would have no deterrent effect on the companies.

“It’s an extraordinary environmental crime with a large number of victims, even deaths and it keeps recurring,” Khalisah told the Post.

The government should not have taken over the burned concessions either as that shifted the responsibility for restoring the damage caused by the companies to the government, she said.

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UK: 'Biblical' moth influx threatens to devastate crops

Pallab Ghosh BBC News 14 Jun 16;

Scientists have learned that cabbage and cauliflower crops could potentially be "devastated" by a species of moth arriving from continental Europe.

BBC News understands that tens of millions of diamondback moths are thought to have come to the UK in the past week.

This is 100 times the number that arrive in the entire year.

Researchers describe the species as a "super pest" because it is thought to be resistant to several insecticides.

An alert has been issued by researchers at the Rothamsted Research in Harpenden in Hertfordshire.

The Twitter feed @migrantmothUK reported a two mile cloud of moths on Saturday night near Leominster. One subscriber to the feed reported that it was like "driving through rain".

Steve Nash, who administers the feed, said much worse was yet to come.

"Once the progeny of this influx arrives in mid-July, numbers could be biblical," he said.

Dr Steve Foster, who works at Rothamsted Research described how they devastate crops.

"There are swarms of them, a bit like plagues of locusts - there are so many of them that they seem like a brown cloud."

Dr Foster and his colleagues learned of the infestation on Friday. They will study the moths to see if they can identify an insecticide that can be used against them as a matter of urgency.

This process could take a few weeks. If they find an effective spray in that time the infestation will be an inconvenience to growers. If not, the moths could "devastate" cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli and oil seed rape across the country, according to Steve Foster.

"Hopefully there will be an Achilles heel and one of the insecticides available to growers will work out," he explained.

"But if you haven't got anything available what you can do apart from sit down and pray, because they are just going to destroy your crops?"

His advice to growers is to try to consult with their authorised advisers about spraying their crops.

If the moths are already resistant to the insecticide, it could result in killing friendly insects such as wasps and ladybirds which prey on other pests - which could make their problems with the moths even worse.

Rothamsted Research learned of the infestation because it produces a survey of moths at the end of each year for conservation purposes. But the survey's administrator, Chris Shortall, noticed chatter on Twitter a week ago about an exceptionally high number of diamondback moths and also noticed high numbers in traps at the research centre.

He rang around his network of "monitors" across the country and asked them if they had noticed an upsurge. They reported that hundreds of the moths were caught in traps each night last week when normally there would be just one or two.

"I'm concerned for cabbage and cauliflower growers which is why I wanted to get this information out as quickly as possible. What I've seen so far is the moth community saying 'we are seeing all these moths isn't it great," he told BBC News.

A trap in Oxfordshire collected 173 moths in one night, another in Guernsey collected 310, in Bedfordshire it was 260, in North Yorkshire it was 71, in County Durham it was 61 and in Berkshire more than 1,000 were trapped over three nights.

The Diamondback moth has also been found in large numbers in in Kirton, Lincolnshire and Wellesbourne, Warwickshire.

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