PLANTATION companies in the palm oil and pulp & paper sectors are not breathing easy this time of the year.
The haze, almost an annual event in the region now, has not appeared in Singapore so far this year, save for a few days late last month. But with two more weeks to the end of the peak dry season in Indonesia, abrupt changes in weather and wind direction could still carry the smog caused by forest burning in the country across the region.
A clean record this year will bring much-needed relief to the industry that has been vilified in recent years. Still, it would point not so much to the effectiveness of ongoing fire prevention work, as to the importance of weather and wind direction, say industry players.
"In the last three years we have had very difficult, long, drawn-out fire seasons," said Craig Tribolet, fire and protection manager at paper manufacturer April.
The main difference this year, he said, is the increased rainfall. "If this year had been as dry as last year, the burning would have started again. Where (fire prevention) efforts work is fire size."
Wilmar International group sustainability assistant general manager Perpetua George agreed: "It's simply because the winds are not pointing at Singapore."
But that is not to say that the efforts put in by industry players and the government have not worked either, they add. Over the past year, plantation firms have started various initiatives in fire prevention and education - a significant pivot from the past when resources were focused on putting out fires.
"There have been huge investments in fire suppression, but unfortunately that's where a lot of people leave it," Mr Tribolet told The Business Times in an interview.
Fire management, the veteran Australian forestry fire manager said, also includes prevention, preparation, and recovery. "For every S$1 spent on fire prevention, I can save S$5 on fire suppression."
Since being hired by April in 2014 - when the group came under fire from Greenpeace for clearing forests and peatland - Mr Tribolet has made fire prevention and preparation his focus, and diverted resources towards this area.
The same goes for the other large Indonesian paper producer Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), whose products were yanked off supermarket shelves in Singapore last year due to supposed links to the haze. The group in the past year has adopted a new integrated fire management strategy, with prevention, preparation, early detection and rapid response as its key pillars, said a spokesman.
"Preparation is about having the right gear in the right place at the right time," Mr Tribolet explained. For example, if fire-fighting gear is placed in the head office, away from the forest fires, or if people do not know how to use it, then it is as good as having no fire-fighting equipment. Other preparation work includes ensuring that there is sufficient water on site ahead of a dry season.
Concurring, Anita Neville, head of sustainability communications at palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources, said the strength of a firm's fire emergency response is irrelevant if it cannot control the factors that start the fire in the first place.
In this vein, Golden Agri has, for a start, introduced a fire-free programme with 17 villages in the most fire-prone regions within West Kalimantan and Jambi. Under this programme, it trains and equips local volunteer firefighters and teaches sustainable land-clearing methods.
Similarly, one of the most significant initiatives this year, according to industry players, was the formation of the Fire Free Alliance - a voluntary partnership of large companies in the pulp and paper as well as palm oil sectors - in March. Started by April Group, it targets high-risk, fire-prone communities within or around concession areas by providing monetary incentives and assistance for land clearing, and conducting awareness programmes.
Many plantation companies have also ramped up their investments in fire-fighting infrastructure, whether in fire brigades or in surveillance drones. Golden Agri, one of them, says this has brought about visible results.
"Previously people had to walk through thick forests" to ascertain whether satellite hotspots were really fires, said Ms Neville. This, she added, was manpower-intensive and took many hours. "Technological investments helped us to be able to identify quickly risk areas, from what satellite technology is telling us."
As the country headed into the dry season in July, Golden Agri also stepped up its preparation efforts. Water towers were checked to ensure they are well stocked, fire drills were carried out, and foot patrols were increased.
But preparation work done in advance is still key, Ms Neville emphasised. "If you haven't done the work by now it's too late. It's pretty much a constant process to ensure that everything is functioning."
Beyond fire prevention and preparation work on the company level, plantation firms, recognising that the factors driving deforestation are often complex and interlinked, have started various macro initiatives in the hope of addressing the problem in a holistic manner.
Wilmar International, the largest palm oil processor in the world, is working with state governments and multinational non-government organisations (NGOs) on environmental and land right issues at the state and district levels, said Wilmar's Ms George.
"The landscape approach is critical," she told BT. "If you're looking only at individual companies or entities, when you have big issues coming up like fire or haze, you can't really work around (these other factors)."
Golden Agri, in thinking along the same line, took on a different approach.
It has developed education modules for children that teach the negative impact of forest fires, the factors that could result in these and the possible solutions. Having run a pilot programme with some schools in one of its concessions, it is now in talks with Indonesia's education ministry to have these modules adopted into the national curriculum.
On the political front, the Indonesian government, long criticised for its failure in stopping the haze from occurring, has also showed a stronger resolve to stamp out the problem, many observe.
Since last year's haze, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has announced a ban on expanding palm oil plantations and peatland development, as well as created a peatland restoration agency that is working actively to implement the government's conservation policy.
Company and government efforts aside, however, the greatest challenge remains in changing the practices of smallholders, which account for about 40 per cent of oil palm plantations in Indonesia.
Said Golden Agri's Ms Neville: "It was really clear to us as a company that in some ways it doesn't matter how good our fire response is if we can't change the behaviour of the people living around us."
The worst palm oil cultivation practices are magnified at the smallholders' level, said Ms George. "We're looking at smallholders as the main indicator of change."
Noting that many of these practices are caused by smallholders not having sufficient support, Wilmar is working to provide them the financial incentives to change. Just last month, a group of more than 2,700 independent oil palm smallholders, supported by Wilmar, received sustainability certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - the largest individual group of independent smallholders in the world to be certified.
Wilmar is also now working with downstream buyers such as L'Oreal to strengthen demand for certified palm oil from smallholders.
The process of changing the ingrained practices of smallholders, however, will be a long journey, many concede.
"It's about education, tradition and culture," said Ms Neville. "It's a bit like how you'd get people to put on their seatbelt or quit smoking."