Focus: Asia’s Palm Oil Industry – Part 1

KL-Haze

A Burning Issue

Urgent measures are needed to curb the negative environmental effects of palm oil production.

The much-awaited transboundary haze pollution meeting in Kuala Lumpur has brought no relief to Ihsan, the 7-month-old Indonesian boy whose home province Riau on Indonesia’s Sumatra island is one of the places where the recent smog originated.

At the three-day gathering that ended on July 17, Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya told his Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts from Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore that his country would finally ratify a regional treaty to fight smog from forest fires.

However, the decision, taken after years of dithering, would translate into action only by the year’s end or 2014. And even an agreement by the five ministers to run a joint haze monitoring system would not be implemented until it is approved by the ASEAN heads of state summit in October.

But Ihsan, racked by respiratory infection, needs relief right now. So do many more like him who are suffering from the pall of smoke and suspended particles that blanketed Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in June in the region’s worst air pollution in a decade.

The haze reduced visibility, caused public programs to be canceled and closed schools. The pollution index, where readings above 300 mean hazardous levels, reached 401 in Singapore. In Indonesia, it was 900. A fifth of the fires responsible for the haze have been traced to palm oil concessions in Sumatra, where 70 percent of Indonesia’s plantations are located. Palm oil, made from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is used in a wide variety of products, from food and cosmetics to biodiesel. Called the “liquid gold” of Southeast Asia because of its low cost and high demand, it is a major economic prop in Indonesia and Malaysia. Together, they account for about 85 percent of the global output.

In 2012, Indonesia produced around 26 million tons, with estimates of a 6 to 7 percent increase per annum. The fires are caused as farmers torch forests to bring more land under cultivation. After the June disaster, Greenpeace International analyzed NASA data to show hundreds of such blazes in Indonesia. In Riau alone there were 250 hot spots.

“The conditions that led to this disaster did not happen overnight,” says Yuyun Indradi, Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s forest campaigner.

“ASEAN will need to come up with more than words. It will have to strengthen the haze treaty and bring to account palm oil companies that contribute to this disaster through clearing forests and draining peat land.”

Greenpeace says it is not antipalm oil, which is a key tool to lift people out of poverty. Its campaign is against deforestation, which is destroying the habitat of endangered wildlife species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhino, and the pygmy elephant of Borneo. It is also increasing carbon emissions.

“One of the threats to the forests and peat lands of Indonesia is a section of the palm oil industry that continues irresponsible expansion,”

Yuyun says. “We push palm oil producers to implement strict policies … and ensure (that the) oil in their supply chains is free from forest destruction.”

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A Burning Issue was written by Sudeshna Sarkar, China Daily Asia Weekly, August 2 – 8, 2013.

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