Malaysia must own up to its hand in haze menace

Big multi-national corporations from Malaysia in search of land for oil palm plantations found a rich hinterland in Sumatra. Their successes attracted companies in Singapore to join in.

Jonathan Von blogs in his Facebook about the choking haze in Singapore that caused him to suffer breathing difficulty and prayed hard for the rain.

His FB posting in rhymed stanza on 21 July 2014 read:

MAIGAD this haze, is killin’ me,

I must confess, i cannot breathe,

When it gets smoky i lose my mind,

Give me a siiiiiiiggnnnnnn…..

Send the rain down one more time.

“The cavalry (clouds) arrives, bad news for the haze that haunts us for the last one week”, cheered Jimmy Leow, a manager-cum-citizen journalist for Malaysiakini.com, in his FB posting up north in Penang, Malaysia, a month later.

Von and Leow are two working professionals living 800km apart. They faced the same health hazard and the same sense of helplessness. As long as the dry season persists, they are on the same boat, lamenting their discomfort from the same concern.

Every time they swore, their mind turned to Indonesia, namely Riau province in Sumatra, the area from where the haze originated. and the cause large-scale open burning of forested land for oil palm plantations.

Satellite images have recorded many hotspots there. Haze is definitely an ‘exported’ trans-boundary air pollution that is carried by strong winds across the Straits of Malacca to neighbouring six Southeast Asian countries in the north; with the worst hit being Malaysia and Singapore.

This annual haze phenomenon is said to affect the health of some 75 million people.

With El Nino (dry spell) expected to hit this region, there is no slack in the intensity of the haze bellowing and shrouding cities in the weeks ahead.

One of the worst haze happened in June 2013 when illegal fires in Sumatra plunged the Southeast Asian region — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Southern Thailand – into a crisis.

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Singapore hit a high of 401 (hazardous range), while in Muar, Johor, the Air Pollution Index (API) spiked on 23 June to 746, sending the district into a state of emergency. Readings exceeding 200 for both the PSI and API is considered as unhealthy and a health hazard.

Haze is not an isolated incident; it is a major environment problem since 1992.

Haze is man-made and a self-inflicted wound.

May to September is the time of the year when farmers eager to prepare their farm land for replanting go about with their traditional practice of slash and burn.

This alone will not bring about the volume of smokes sufficient enough to blacken the skies. Hot-spot images showed large scale open burnings that are happening in areas where oil palm plantations are found in the Riau province in Sumatra, Indonesia.

In the past decade benefiting from the high world palm oil prices, Riau has witnessed a change and reaped economic benefits the likes of which residents there had not seen before.

Corporate Interest versus Health Risk

Big multi-national corporations from Malaysia in search of land to open up for oil palm plantations found a rich hinterland in Sumatra. Their successes attracted companies in Singapore to join in.

Soon enough, with big profits make in selling palm oil that is fetching high prices, Malaysia’s superannuation funds like Employee’s Provident Fund, Tabung Haji and Armed Forces Pension Fund Board (LTAT) invested in Malaysian-owned companies operating these oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

It was a good return on investment and fat dividends were paid out to their shareholders.

Today, apart from the superannuation funds, Malaysia’s conglomerate Sime Darby Group has over 10,000 hectares of land under oil palm plantation there.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is benefiting from Foreign Direct Investments and the local economy in Riau also prospered.

Fast forward today, Indonesia has vastly expanded its oil palm plantations, overtaking Malaysia to become the world’s biggest supplier. The palm oil industry in Indonesia is worth US$21billion industry and it contributes to about 5 per cent of its GDP.

Malaysia, being a party to all this, cannot wash its hands. Last year, the Indonesian Environment Minister named eight Malaysian companies with fire hotspots on their concessions. The companies have, however, denied such claims.

This haze that has crossed over to the peninsula from Sumatra is self-inflicted. In the interest of lower cost and higher profit margins, the allegedly errant parties (Malaysian-owned companies) are putting at risk the people’s health.

Opposition deputy chairman S. Ramakrishnan in the State of Johor in Peninsular, the state closest to Riau province and facing the brunt of the haze air pollution, has disclosed that these Malaysian-owned companies as big and powerful corporations with heavy political patronage.

“I am just a small mosquito, but I believe that I am speaking for the majority of Malaysians who are fed up with haze. I am also calling for Malaysian consumers to invoke a wide boycott on companies accused of polluting the air through indiscriminate land clearing in Indonesia

“We must educate our consumers to play a part in eradicating haze once and for all from our skies,” the former Senator says.

Based on satellite data, it is estimated that 80% of the fires were set by plantation companies or their sub-contractors for land clearing purposes, while the remaining 20% by ‘slash-and-burn’ practice by farmers.

Political patronage and Impunity

Many Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean firms have been able to evade official investigation by the Indonesian Government even when there were repeated indicators of open burning. The widespread practice of patronage politics in this sector has emboldened errant companies to act with impunity, says Ramakrishnan.

“Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Indonesia are linked to powerful political elites back home who are more motivated by material gain than protecting the interests of the people affected by the haze.

“There is little hope to address trans-boundary haze effectively unless the root cause of the system, patronage politics is conclusively addressed. Political patronage protects the trans-border haze pollutants,” he claims.

Ramakrishnan says the records showed that Malaysian and Singaporean investors controlled more than two-thirds of the Indonesian oil palm plantation sector.

“They are a powerful lobby group. I hope Greenpeace will take up the cause as all other efforts including by Malaysia’s own environment ministry has failed miserably.

Haze a health hazard

Medical doctor Dr T. Jayabalan says while there are no official statistics done by the Health Ministry to indicate that the rise of respiratory ailments was due to haze, most would agree that respiratory ailments were always on the rise during the dry season.

“Patients who are previously non-asthmatic become asthma sufferers while the conditions of asthmatic patients become worse. I know as I am treating them,” he says.

Haze agreement in limbo?

Legislator Steven Sim says he is concerned with the effectiveness of the ASEAN agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution to curb haze pollution since it is already 12 years of existence.

“This is evidence that the 21st century requires a different set of mentality in dealing with diplomacy and foreign relation. We are dealing not just with state actors but many non-state actors as well, notably in this case MNCs’ haze-causing activities.

More than 10 years after the agreement, Indonesia, the largest ASEAN country and one of the major locations where land clearing is carried in large scale which causes serious air pollution has yet to ratify the agreement.

“While the blame is directed to Malaysian or Singaporean companies operating in Indonesia, the Indonesia government needs to demonstrate more commitment to tackle this issue within its own jurisdiction.

“Signing the agreement is definitely the first step. Enacting and enforcing air pollution regulation within its jurisdiction is next.

Malaysia, he says, should monitor the activities of Indonesia-based Malaysia companies in particular GLCs to ensure they adhere to the principles of the agreement. This is a major transnational problem which affects even our own country and we cannot be mere passive observers.

A case of the pot calling the kettle black

Lawyer S. Raveentharan says Indonesia should not resort to the case of the pot calling the kettle black.

“Indonesia has no excuses. It must act on all companies polluting the environment even if they are Malaysian or Singaporean firms.

“I hope the new Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will have the political will to make the changes needed and not repeat the same stance of previous leaders by shifting blame to others,” he says.

Founder of Rights movement (an Asean human rights and anti-genocide organisation) Yusmadi Yusoff says it is paramount that in this age of globalisation, Asean must stand up as one voice and protect its own skies.

“If Asean cannot cooperate to tackle the environment concern, how can Asean tackle other issues,” he asks.

In a The Establishment report filed by Vanitha Nadaraj in July this year, the haze has caused Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to suffer huge economic losses.

She quoted Adelina Kamal of Asean’s Bureau of Functional Cooperation in a 2002 report that “the total economic losses in terms of agriculture production, destruction of forest lands, health, transportation, tourism, and other economic endeavors have been estimated of US$9.3 billion.”

Another worst case happened in 2013 when the haze spread further affecting southern Thailand and Brunei. For Singapore itself, it was the worst ever and the government estimated the economic losses at US$1 billion a week, as quoted in the report.

In a concluding remark in her 2013 paper entitled on “Patronage Politics, Plantation Fires and Trans-boundary Haze” by author Helena Varkkey in the journal Environmental Hazards Vol. 12 noted succinctly that:

“The serious environmental hazard that is the almost annual trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia can be seen to be bolstered by patronage networks that are prevalent in the business atmosphere of Indonesia.

“Well-connected local and foreign oil palm plantation companies have been able to take advantage of these linkages to ensure that they can act with impunity. Hence, these companies continue to use fire as a cost-efficient way to clear land in preparation for planting while disregarding the serious environmental implications that rise from the hazardous smoke that is produced from these fires.

“The national laws and regulations against the use of fire are rendered useless in the face of powerful economic interests, and the SoutheastAsian society continues to suffer the effects of haze pollution year after year.”

This self-inflicted bane will continue and with the onset of El Nino hitting Southeast Asia the worst is yet to come and again the people’s health is short-changed by profiteering.

About KY Pung

Pung is the media representative of The Wall Street Journal in Malaysia and multi-tasking in various capacities. He is a Public Relations consultant and the Publisher of a travel and lifestyle magazine, where2, which he also edits. His past 25 years of newspaper work included that as Regional Associate Editor of the largest English daily.

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