Best of our wild blogs: 21 May 17

Larval Host Plant for Butterflies: Sea Almond
Butterflies of Singapore

Night Walk At Punggol Promenade Nature Walk (19 May 2017)
Beetles@SG BLOG

Singapore Raptor Report – February 2017
Singapore Bird Group

Expect delays at Changi bumboats during peak periods until 17 Sep 2017
wild shores of singapore

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A burning issue for Singapore: Indonesia readies for haze battle

Jakarta is desperate to prevent a repeat of the forest fires that caused US$16 billion of damage, kicked up more carbon dioxide than the United States, and upset neighbours including the Lion City, Malaysia and Thailand
JEFFREY HUTTON South China Morning Post 21 May 17;

Almost every year around this time – during the dry season – haze descends on Riau. And every year Jois Marfu’ah suffers.

Villages and some businesses across Riau, on the island of Sumatra, slash and burn shrub land to make way for crops. The flames belch out a toxic mess that is dangerous to breathe. Ear, nose and throat infections are common. Day becomes night as visibility drops to 50 metres or so, Jois says. Schools close. Trips to see relatives – already arduous on Indonesia’s woeful roads – become torture. And all this goes on for months.

“I want to cry,” says Marfu’ah, 30. “It’s so uncomfortable and scary.”

Two years after fires laid waste to 2 million hectares of land – causing US$16 billion in damage and fraying relations with neighbours Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, which were blanketed in haze – Indonesia is desperate to avoid a rerun.

President Joko Widodo has banned new plantations on fire-prone peat land and bullied police and the military to lift their game. Police chiefs face demotion if fires break out on their patch. A new agency has been created to restore burned-out swathes and Widodo has promised more resources to fight fires.

How effective these measures are is unclear. Last year the dry season that usually settles across much of the archipelago around this time of year, and lasts until October, failed to materialise. This year the weather forecasts for the dry season are split – maybe wet, maybe dry. In any case, the man in charge of fighting the fires once they break out says he’s not taking any chances.

“The fires gave Indonesia a bad reputation. We were caught by surprise,” says Willem Rampangilei, head of the National Agency for Disaster Management. “Last year we got some help from God because of the rain. This year we think it will be drier. We must be prepared.”

Widodo wants Chinese to keep coming – as investors, not workers

At the centre of the issue is peat. A mat of semi-decayed trees, grass and other plants built up since the last ice age, peat land makes up 12 per cent of Indonesia’s territory.

Remote and marginal, the land is cheap and attracts plantation companies growing millions of hectares of oil palm or acacia trees for pulp and paper. Draining and drying peat oxidises all that built-up carbon and makes it flammable. At their height, the fires in 2015 kicked up as much carbon dioxide as the whole of the United States during an average 24-hour period.

The government, through its newly minted Peatland Restoration Agency, has restored about 270,000 hectares. It’s promised an additional 150,000 hectares will be restored before the end of the year.

“The political will is there. The government was deeply embarrassed by the fires in 2015,” says Herry Purnomo, a researcher at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor, 40km from Jakarta.

“The government is pulling in the same direction, and for the police their careers depend on preventing fires. This is significant.”

But discouraging people from using fire to clear land means going much deeper than the attitudes of bureaucrats in faraway Jakarta. The practice is baked into the mindsets of many who firmly believe not only that it is cheap but, falsely, that it is a source of fertiliser.

So some plantation companies are attempting to help villages that border their concessions to break their fire habit. Three years ago Singapore-based pulp and paper company Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd (APRIL) offered 100 million rupiah
(HK$60,000) in prize money for villages that remained fire-free for a year. Winnings from the programme go towards infrastructure such as bridges or markets.

A year later the company spruced up the programme, offering advice on clearing land without fire and agriculture as well as the annual prize money. It appointed a local resident to keep a finger on the pulse of the village as a way of staying abreast of local needs and identifying potential firebugs.

The programme resulted in a dramatic fall in the amount of land consumed by fire. Throughout the nine villages, covering more than 400,000 hectares of land, that were participating in the programme in 2015, only 54 hectares were burned. The company has since expanded the programme to 27 villages.

One of the villages to win was Sering, population 3,000. Months of back and forth between company representatives and the village helped whittle the area lost to fire from 80 hectares in 2013 to just 0.5 hectares in 2015 and then finally to zero last year.

“There is a culture of burning the land,” Amirul Mukminim, a department head with the local government, says. “Most of the community had the perception that burning is legal and normal.”

But as the message filtered into the sermons during Friday prayers, attitudes started to change. “Sering is poor. It’s not easy to socialise people away from burning,” Mukminim says.

Not everyone is a fan of the approach. Greenpeace says that, though welcome, APRIL’s outreach to villages deflects attention from how it manages peat land within its concessions and those held by suppliers, which contribute about half of its raw material. “It’s not enough for the company to point to work in one area to reduce fires without demonstrating how it is reducing fire risks elsewhere, such as through raising water levels across the entirety of its operations on peat,” says Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner of Greenpeace Indonesia.

APRIL defended its approach: “Fire prevention is one aspect of a holistic landscape approach that aims to balance responsible production with forest conservation and protection. We are focused on a science-led approach to responsible peat land management.”

Other plantation companies have picked up the model, at least in part. Singapore-based palm oil company Musim Mas offers prizes of roughly US$2,500 to villages that remain fire-free. It says its efforts cover 72 villages comprising more than 500,000 hectares. The company wanted to move fast because it was concerned about burnishing its sustainability credentials and fending off legal probes as governments cracked down on plantation companies.

Indonesia’s haze crisis is Singapore’s haze crisis. During the worst of the burning season, prevailing winds from Sumatra coat the city state in fine particulate matter. The tiniest of these lodge in lungs and wreak havoc. Last year the index measuring these pollutants, PM2.5, went above 470 – out of a maximum of 500.

“This is such a powerful issue here,” says Musim Mas spokeswoman Carolyn Lim, who is based in Singapore. “You look out your window and you can’t see anything.”

Singapore has threatened to haul plantation companies – many of which are listed there – to court to answer for the haze. The government has demanded that six Indonesian suppliers linked to Asian Pulp and Paper Group explain their sustainability practices to its National Environment Agency.

In March last year Malaysian palm oil giant IOI Group was stripped of its sustainability certificates by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. The loss meant multinational companies dumped it as a supplier.

“This programme does wonders for your sustainability. We didn’t use to do any fire management outside of our concession. We realised that this whole situation is becoming criminalised,” Lim explains.

“Whether you like it or not you’re responsible for what happens in these villages.” ■

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Amid high-tech push, longtime Lim Chu Kang farmers keep faith with tradition

WONG PEI TING Today Online 20 May 17;

SINGAPORE — As the longtime farmers in Lim Chu Kang come face-to-face with the Government’s push for them to adopt new technologies, they swear by the simple technologies that they have devised and used over the past 20 years, saying that these work.

No need for conveyor belts or state-of-the-art tools, for what they have on their side is the strength of their know-how, personal care and knowledge of their farm animals and produce, and the results to show for it.

A quail farmer, a vegetable farmer, and a frog farmer tell TODAY about the values of prudence and minimalism that they uphold.


Step into 63-year-old farm Lian Wah Hang, and you will feel like you are visiting a science park of sorts that is filled with disarming inventions.

There are cages with 15-degree sloped bases, so that freshly laid quail eggs can roll out gently onto a collection tray.

Incubators are made using household items such as light bulbs and black plastic sheets that cost no more than S$200 each.

And there is that atmospheric-pressure-based water feeder, made of pipes with holes, that will dispense water onto a holder when pecked by bird chicks.

These simple tips and tricks are all the technology that 94-year-old Ho Seng Choon and his sons adopted.

The farm, mind you, was once at the frontier of modern farming techniques in the 1960s. It was one of the pioneers to introduce machine incubators, automatic egg graders that check for spots and cracks and sort eggs according to their size, and feather-plucking machines.

Despite having helped other farms including pig farms in Punggol and Kalimantan, Indonesia, move into automation in the past, it kept its own processes fuss-free today because “hi-tech doesn’t always equals results”, Mr Ho’s son William, 51, said.

For example, an automatic quail egg grader and packer could cut the job of four workers, but its S$500,000 price tag is not justified to help the farm sort and pack 30,000 eggs a day. Right now, six workers can do this in an hour in the evenings.

Another idea that sounds good on paper is to fix conveyor belts so that more labour-intensive processes such as feeding, egg collection and manure collection can be sped up, Mr Ho said. However, while it may reduce one’s physical exertion, it increases mental stress instead when they have to balance the accounts, such as having to match the investment with increased productivity when the demand remains largely stagnant.

Mr Ho, who had chosen farming over a career as an engineer with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, said such mental strain is uncalled for, and that farming is supposed to be all country and soul, with “no pressure”, yet “very fulfilling”.

“It’s very rewarding because you tend the earth, the animals give you back the returns.”

This is a day in his life: In the morning, his employees will feed the quails and clean up the coops so that their birds — numbering 150,000 at present — can “feel more at home”.

Then he will send about 10,000 quails to the slaughterhouse or transport the birds’ manure to other farms to be used as fertilisers.
After lunch, they will put new eggs into an incubator or take chicks into a brooder, which is a toasty-warm coop to nurture them into toddlerhood.

After tea time, they will feed the animals again and collect the eggs. This last part still thrills Mr Ho.

“Every egg you collect is like every cent that you put in your pockets… You feed the quails in the morning, and collect the returns by evening. The feeling is indescribable. That’s why I love being a farmer,” he said.

All these have served the business well, but the signs that things have to change are appearing.

The farm has been making S$90,000 in monthly revenue from 1997 to 2016, until Malaysian imports started to flood the market this year and they are only getting a third of what they used to earn.

Then, by 2019, it would have to move out of its 2.7ha premises to a proposed 1.5ha space, the vacated site of Aero Green Technology at Neo Tiew Crescent.

Mr Ho shook his head as he foresees that he would need an estimated S$3.5 million to build his facility from scratch there. “The investment, overheads and material costs will be sky-high... I asked for the ministry to come up with a special arrangement or package to help us in financing the structural build-up, but unfortunately, there is no mechanism yet.”

He finds that the same money could be used to upgrade Lian Wah Hang’s existing space, which has not been open to public since 2004, to kickstart its recreational and educational arm, such as having a visitor’s centre, museum and event hall, among others. For now, the Tourism Board certified nature guide is currently conducting farm tours from Farmart Centre at Sungei Tengah near Choa Chu Kang.
Moving would mean “needing to start all over again (and) that we need to slowly build our flocks up”, he said.


Fluctuating weather in Singapore is a daily battle for local vegetable farms Farm 85 and Yili Vegetation. Too hot, and crops like cai xin and xiao bai cai might not get receive enough water. Too wet, and soil nutrients and fertilisers get washed away.

But the farms, neighbours at Lim Chu Kang Lane 1, have found a way to overcome the problem, through adapting a greenhouse setup they came across four years ago during a study trip to a Shandong farm in eastern China.

They used black netting as the heat-trapping material, in place of a white plastic cover, so less heat penetrates when the sun is overhead. To allow more air to flow through the greenhouse, they extended the width of the roof from 1m to 2.5m.

Just like that, the two farms, which have been around for about 20 years, manage to churn out about 15 harvests each annually. That’s seven tonnes of leafy greens daily, or about one-quarter the Republic’s vegetable produce.

Everything else at their setups is by the sweat of brow. Seeds, germinated in a nursery for up to 12 days first, are transplanted by hand. Four to five workers are needed for each hectare of land – Farm 85 is close to 14ha, Yili is 4ha.

After 20 to 24 days — depending, again, on the weather — the produce is harvested by hand and manually packed.

Although they are keen to continue upgrading their systems, Farm 85 director Tan Koon Hua, 49, and Yili owner Alan Toh, 53, said it is not just a matter of buying machines.

Mr Tan said, in Mandarin: “(Relying on a machine to keep temperatures in a greenhouse constant) might work in countries with four seasons, but it is not suitable in Asia. Singapore’s temperature fluctuates a lot, so the system needs to keep adjusting to keep the conditions the same, so the machine spoils easily, incurring higher maintenance costs, while its intended impact is not there.”

What could work, though, are sensors that alert them to toggle settings to regulate temperatures remotely, they said. Even if they are overseas, a few taps on a tablet or smartphone is all that is needed to ensure crops are tended to optimally.

But such sensors cost S$15,000 each. And for every hectare, eight such sensors are needed.

With the land they are currently sitting on up for redevelopment by the end of 2021, the idea has to be put on the backburner.

For now, a bigger concern looms: Is the land parcel they are relocating to reclaimed land?

Half of Yili sits on reclaimed land, and it took Mr Toh more than five years to adjust the soil conditions using compost. And even then, the results are sub-optimal, 20 years on.

Mr Toh said water still does not drain as well as it does on natural soil, and the yield is as much as 30 per cent lower, as well as of poorer quality.

“(Produce) from reclaimed land are ‘old-looking’ – they take two to three days more to ripen, so the quality changes,” he said. “But on natural soil, my spinach heads are white and translucent, they sparkle.”


Thirty-six years ago, Ms Chelsea Wan’s father started Jurong Frog Farm, even though the various limitations here — they depend on Mother Nature for enough rain for their frogs to grow properly because rules forbid them from using water from the tap for the frogs, for instance — put the number of frogs they can rear from scratch out of their hands.

Since then, their singular focus has been to make every frog they have count — beyond the frog legs they sell for dishes, such as porridge.

In 1999, they had their first breakthrough: Producing hashima locally. The collagen-rich delicacy was previously thought of as only attainable from frogs living in mountains in the northern regions of China. But Ms Wan’s father, after two years of experimentation, found a way to convert the fatty tissue found near a frog’s fallopian tube into hashima.

He used different methods and temperatures to dry the tissue, but the taste and texture was not up to mark. So he employed various ways to cutting the tissue, finally finding a streamlined process to mass-produce it for the market.

Today, the hashima they produce earns enough to “cover one to two head counts” but is a source of pride.

They did not stop there.

Later, Ms Wan found that frog innards can be sold to pet shops and clinics as an alternative diet for dogs with skin problems.
Frog skin? Why not deep fry it and serve it as a snack, similar to what is done for fish skin?

Recently, they started working on a new idea. Tapping researchers from the Nanyang Technological University — who took up residence at the farm — they are toying with processes to harvest bioactive collagen peptides from frog skin for use in cosmetic products.

All these efforts, said Ms Wan, have yielded extra income, so much so that half of what they used to discard now brings in revenue.
This enterprising spirit, to the 34-year-old who became a frog farmer right after graduating with a Sociology degree from National University of Singapore, is what it means to be true farmers: They make do, innovate, and grow within their means.

After all, farming is “not rocket science”, she quipped. The conditions are “so simple, so basic”, and “you don’t need to employ a six-figure system to run the operations, and then incur much more in percentage of utility costs”, she added.

“There are things like automatic food dispensers, but farmers should be the ones feeding because you need to monitor the rate of (your animals’) growth. You need to pick up the diseased animals early enough. You just need to feed them – how long will it take?”

In fact, getting your hands dirty is, to Ms Wan, as much a vital part of a farming existence as the simple pleasures she enjoyed growing up in her family’s farm.

Last December, she moved into a flat in Bukit Panjang and is still trying to adjust to the changes — traffic is too noisy, there is no fresh air, nor unobstructed views of the sky.

“Right now work is still quite menial. Nothing is really mechanised ... We rely on the elements, but funny thing is the farm is still around 35 years later,” she said.

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