Indonesia’s forest fire smoke blows deeper into Malaysia
Pollution level in smog covered parts of the country jumps to above hazardous level as Singapore gets temporary respite
By: John Vidal, guardian.co.uk, Monday 24 June 2013 16.09 BST
Singapore was given respite on Monday from the pollution of hundreds of peat fires burning on the island of Sumatra when the prevailing south westerly wind changed direction slightly at the weekend, blowing the acrid moke further north into Malaysia. But the thickest haze recorded by the city state in over 30 years is expected to return periodically until steady rains come in September, said meteorologists.
As Indonesia deployed planes and a fourth helicopter to help douse the fires in Riau province, Sumatra, much of southern Malaysia was shrouded in thick smog. The pollution index in the capital Kuala Lumpur rose close to the officially “very unhealthy” 200 level for the first time, but registered up to 746 elsewhere, well above 300, the level considered “hazardous”.
Independent analysis of Nasa fire maps suggest that there are still over 800 fires burning, many in former peat forests near Pekanbaru. Many of the hotspots identified by satellite are in what appears to be the concession areas of some of the world’s largest palm oil and pulp and paper companies, some of which are owned by Singaporean and Malaysian families.
But interpretations have differed of who is responsible for setting the fires. According to the World Resources Institute in Washington, which has overlaid government maps of Indonesian oil palm, logging and timber concessions onto publicly-available US Active Fire Data satellite maps to pinpoint the location of fires, relatively few have occurred in protected areas and selective logging concessions.
A thick haze makes Kuala Lumpur’s skyline barely visible. Malaysia has declared emergency in southern parts after Indonesia’s forest fires led to record level of pollution.
Photograph: Lai Seng Sin/AP
“Half of the fires are burning on timber and oil palm plantations. Although it is illegal for companies in Indonesia to start forest or land fires, several companies have used fires for land clearing in the past. It will be important to gather more detailed information about the exact location of the fires and their causes, which could have important implications for the companies and government agencies involved,” said Nigel Sizer of WRI.
“According to available official data, companies that are part of the Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas (RGM) groups own the concessions licenses where the largest numbers of fire alerts are found. Together, these two groups account for more than 50 % of the fires across all concessions,” said WRI.
But Greenpeace in Jakarta overlaid the same US satellite data with other government concession maps and concluded that the fires were mostly in palm oil plantations rather than in the concessions of pulp and paper companies. “The lack of government transparency makes it very hard for independent monitoring: concession maps are incomplete, data is lacking and we clearly have weak enforcement of laws,” said Greenpeace southeast Asia forest campaigner, Yuyun Indradi.
Indonesian ministers on 22 June officially blamed eight companies owned by Malaysian investors working in Riau but used only their initials. However, 24 hours before that a senior Indonesian presidential aide named Sinar Mas and Asia Pacific Resources International (April), one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies, in connection with the fires. However, April was not among those eight named by ministers.
Both companies responded at the weekend saying that fires on their land had been started outside their zones but had now been contained. Other international companies with plantation interests in Indonesia include Wilmar International and Sime Darby. Both have denied setting fires in their concession areas.
In a statement, April said: “We have now completed a review of the satellite imagery and have verified by direct field inspection that there are currently three fires in our concessions covering approximately 20 hectares. These fires have been contained and our fire fighters are working to extinguish them. All fires … originally started outside of their concession areas and had spread into concessions.
A car drives past a fire from burning trees planted for palm oil, at Bangko Pusako district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photograph: Beawiharta/Reuters
But Greenpeace rejected their statements andf called on the companies to stop the drainage and development on peatlands and ensure palm oil in their supply chains is free from forest destruction. “Palm oil giants such as Sime Darby and Wilmar International can’t just wash their hands of responsibility for these crimes and hide behind their zero burning policies. These types of companies created the conditions for this disaster by draining and clearing peatland,” said Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace International.
Indonesia has launched an investigation into the fires which is due to report within a week, but the country’s national disaster management agency has said it thinks oil palm plantation companies are at least partly responsible. “Since the fires are happening mostly on plantation lands, we believe there are plantation companies involved,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the agency.
Malaysia today called on Indonesia to stop “finger-pointing” after the Indonesian government blamed Malaysian companies working in Riau. “They are saying Malaysian companies are involved but Indonesian companies are also involved,” said Malaysia’s natural resources and environment minister G Palanivel.
Malaysia’s foreign minister Anifah Aman added that whoever was responsible should be brought to book regardless of nationality. He said both large companies and smallholders have long used fire to clear forest and other land ahead of cultivation. Over 10m hectare of land has been cleared in the past 20 years but the Indonesian government renewed its two year moratorium on clear felling of rainforest in May, which should have reduced the use of fire considerably. Many companies have been able to get around the law because the moratorium only applies to new concessions.
This years’ fires are thought to be particularly bad because of tinder-dry conditions. The last time that southeast Asia experienced anything similar was in 1997 when fires, mostly in Borneo, plagued much of the region for several months, caused numerous shipping and aviation accidents and left thousands suffering respiratory and heart problems.