A future with no haze

Our skies may be clear this year, but various groups are still toiling in indonesia to banish the scourge that is the haze

DORJEE Sun, a serial entrepreneur, is a man on a mission. The Australian, who made his first million before the age of 30, believes that he has a solution to solve the haze problem for good.

The only hitch in the plan: US$66 million.

It is easy to dismiss the 40-year-old as a bright-eyed dreamer with ideas that may not float in the real world, especially when he says he plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the US$66 millionfrom Singaporeans.

Why should Singaporeans open their wallets for a problem that isn't caused by them, you ask.

The director of environmental business Carbon Conservation concedes that governments are ultimately responsible for solving the problem. "But if the government fails, we have to use the citizenry."

He adds: "I also think Indonesia should pay, but the problem is, the haze doesn't blow to Jakarta. So they always say, what are you whining about? The only one who suffers as much is Kuala Lumpur.

"This is the problem: if there is a problem and no one cares except the people affected, who's going to act?"

Dig a little deeper, and one sees in the plan not just idealism but also a pragmatism that knows how to make it work. Mr Sun, after all, had started three companies in his 20s - relating to various fields such as human resource, education and advertising - and sold them off before turning his attention to tackling deforestation and the haze problem.

The 66 million dollar question

His plan rests on a strategy propagated by a grouping of forestry and palm oil companies as well as non-governmental organisations known as the Fire Free Alliance (FFA).

Launched in February last year, the alliance is based on the Fire Free Village Programme started by pulp and paper company April Group in July 2015 - just two months before the worst haze in over a decade hit Singapore and other countries in the region.

The programme focuses on fire prevention efforts through community engagement, and has five key planks:

  • giving cash rewards as an incentive to villages that have no forest fires in areas allocated to them;
  • recruiting village representatives to be fire crew leaders;
  • providing agriculture assistance;
  • developing fire awareness among the community;
  • monitoring air quality and associated health information.

The FFA, one of the first groupings in the industry to tackle haze, counts among its six original members some of the largest companies in the sector, such as Wilmar International. Other industry behemoths, Malaysian palm oil producers Sime Darby and IOI, joined this year. Altogether, they engage more than 200 villages covering at least 1.5 million hectares of land across various parts of Indonesia.

The alliance was a result of April's desire to "open-source" their knowledge on fire prevention, says Mr Sun, who served as FFA's secretariat.

Indeed, the programme appears to have worked for April, which says it saw a drop in the burnt area from 619 ha to 54 ha in 2015.

This rose again to 391 ha last year, mainly due to a single fire event in a remote village; all other fires contributed to only 45.7 per cent ha of the total burnt area, April said in a report published in March this year.

Mr Sun believes this can be extrapolated to other villages - if funds could be raised.

Running the programme for one village for a year costs US$30,000, he says. At the same time, the Indonesia government has identified 731 villages located in seven provinces that are prone to forest fires.

To run the programme for three years - in order that the new mindset takes root among the villagers - it would therefore take US$65.8 million, he says. "That's what it costs to stop the haze, theoretically."

In comparison, the damage caused by the 2015 haze to the Indonesian economy amounted to US$16 billion, according to estimates by the World Bank.

"It cost Indonesia 1.9 per cent of their GDP (gross domestic product)," Mr Sun notes. "US$65.8 million can save US$16 billion. If you do the calculations, it's a 243 times return on investment. The idea simply is that it makes sense. Why don't we just do it?"

Tapping public conscience

Should Singaporeans foot the bill? After all, the haze is not the fault of Singaporeans, Mr Sun acknowledges. But pointing fingers and complaining doesn't help, he says.

"This is what I want to do because I'm sick of waiting for a solution, and I think Singaporeans are sick of waiting for one, too."

The campaign can take various forms. One option, he says, is for Singaporeans to pre-order fire-free agricultural produce.

"So instead of Fairprice kicking Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) out, they should say, we commit to purchasing all the kale, all the kangkong, all the kailan that these fire-free villages produce. And if there's a fire we stop our purchases," says Mr Sun. "So there's a penalty, but there's also a benefit."

Asked for a response to the idea, NTUC Fairprice corporate communications director Jonas Kor says it may be premature to make an informed decision.

"While there is merit to the suggestion, the concern would be that such a system may lead to erratic prices and supply," he says. "It may also over complicate a product's supply and value chain, especially for products that require various levels of processing such as oil which require raw materials from multiple sources."

The supermarket chain will also have to ensure that having to accredit multiple small suppliers will not lead to higher costs for consumers, he adds.

Ultimately, the success of such a fundraising campaign depends on the transparency and integrity of mapping data, Mr Sun believes.

"Everyone wants to know these hotspots - are they really on company land? Because of cloud cover and also poor definition of hotspots, there has been some controversy about this: is this really a hotspot or is this a metal roof that was really hot?

"Now technology is getting to a stage where we can have no excuses. (We can have) absolute clarity through the clouds and we can show that there is definitely a fire.

"Then the question becomes, if the company accepts that responsibility, they should also be rewarded, so they should get a stamp to say they are fire free. If they're not, then they should also be accountable. But the vast majority of the fires are on village lands or smallholders."

If there is reliable mapping done daily to track the progress, it will be hard for Singaporeans to deny that they are making an impact, he says. And even if the Indonesian government is wrong in narrowing the cause of the forest fires to these 731 villages, the programme can be extended to other villages where necessary, he adds.

From indifference to accountability

The road to sustainable palm oil - used in everything from shampoo to plastics - has been a long one. The first inkling the Singapore public got that not all was well in the lands that produce palm oil was when Greenpeace launched a Kit Kat campaign in 2010.

The video that Greenpeace made showed an exhausted office worker biting into a Kit Kat and instead ending up chewing the finger of an orang utan. The visceral visual went viral, leaving parents and children alike horror-stricken and searing itself into the consciousness of the public.

An outcry ensued. Nestle, which produces Kit Kat, pulled its contracts with its palm oil supplier, Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources, which Greenpeace accused of being involved in illegal deforestation and the clearing of peatland.

Golden Agri refuted the charges, but other customers such as Unilever and Burger King also dropped the company as a supplier.

Shaken, it sought help from The Forest Trust, a Swiss non-profit organisation that works to transform commodity supply chains. As an extension of an olive branch while it talked to NGOs, Golden Agri also paused all its bulldozers in end-2010 - an action a company spokesman said is akin to an airline grounding its airplanes.

Shortly after, in February 2011, Golden Agri announced a new forest conservation policy to identify high carbon-stock forests, high conservation value areas and peatlands.

But the move was viewed coldly by the rest of the industry - until the haze enveloped Singapore yet again in June 2013, and fingers were pointed at palm oil companies for buying from third-party suppliers who clear land using fires.

At the same time, sentiment was changing among consumer goods. Companies like Unilever, Ferrero, Nestle, Kellogg and L'Oreal started to commit to buy only certified oil: oil that comes from plantations managed and certified according to certain sustainability criteria by groups such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit group comprising palm oil producers, traders, retailers, banks and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Wilmar, in December that year, declared that its sustainability policy would apply not only to its own plantations, but also to those of their third-party suppliers. Golden Agri followed shortly. Together, both trade about half the world's supply of palm oil.

Other large palm oil players followed with a string of similar pronouncements, bringing across the entire value chain of the industry aligned sustainability standards for the first time.

Subsequently, with an analysis by Global Forest Watch in 2015 finding 48 per cent of fire alerts to be on pulpwood plantations, attention turned to pulp and paper companies such as April Group and APP.

Industry insiders say the situation on the ground is much more complex than many understand. In tackling forest fires, one steps upon many tripwires: the rights of local communities; illegal activity by small companies which may have political links; and grey areas in land use rights, ownership and maps.

For instance, local provincial laws can sometimes differ from federal laws, allowing for burning of land up to two hectares. And even when both are aligned, the lack of enforcement means that the laws have no impact, a senior plantation executive has told BT.

The lack of a common map that governments, companies and NGOs can refer to further complicates matters, as everyone brings their own map to the table.

Bankers under fire

Nevertheless, NGOs have continued to press on in their campaigns against what some deem to be the weakest link in the supply chain: banks.

Greenpeace in January this year published a scathing report on banks that are allegedly financing forest destruction.

Titled "Dirty Bankers", the report focused on HSBC, but said many other banks also have links to palm oil growers that exploit workers and populations, are involved in deforestation, and develop peatland.

"Many banks lack even paper policies on deforestation," it said. Meanwhile, those with policies nearly always only consider the financing of specific projects, and neglect to examine the practices behind these projects.

Banks also often lay out ambitions for their customers rather than provide clear requirements of what their customers must, and must not do, to comply with their policies, it added.

As Washington DC-based lobbyist Glenn Hurowitz points out, the banking sector is the only major financial sector that has taken relatively little action to fight deforestation.

"The major consumer companies around the world and the big consumers of palm oil and paper have almost all adopted very strong forest conservation and human right requirements for their suppliers," says the managing director of lobbying firm Waxman Strategies and chief executive of affiliated campaign company Mighty Earth.

He adds: "Many of the world's largest institutional investors are actively engaged in ensuring the companies they invest in act responsibly. Many of them have shown that they are willing to divest companies, or not invest in them in the first place. They are also actively engaged in pushing these companies to be better."

Large palm oil traders are also doing a lot to ensure their third-party suppliers do not engage in deforestation, though the work in this area is not completed, he says.

"The banking industry really stands out like a naughty child with blueberry pie on their fingers... they are the only ones who haven't grown up and realised they have a problem."

Still, Mr Hurowitz commends BNP Paribas, which in June announced a new palm oil policy, and HSBC, which in February revised its policy to require its customers to protect natural forest and peatland, and provide independent verification of their own "no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation" policy.

Locally, the Association of Banks of Singapore (ABS) had in late 2015 launched guidelines for responsible financing, requiring its member banks to factor into their lending and investment policies issues such as deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

In January this year, it also introduced specific guidelines in dealing with haze, setting out requirements such as no open burning, adherence to local guidelines regarding peatland, and working with local communities to prevent, monitor and suppress fire.

"Singapore banks will require their palm oil clients to comply with these requirements for managing haze and fire risks," says director Ong-Ang Ai Boon. "Banks are expected to assess all existing and new clients, and monitor their commitments to address any related gaps on an ongoing basis."

Bigger solutions wanted

Financing aside, Mr Hurowitz believes that the agriculture industry needs a more comprehensive solution. "Palm oil companies all have strong forest conservation policies but they are sometimes nervous about enforcing them. Sometimes when there is a politically connected palm oil producer that is engaged in deforestation, the big traders are occasionally reluctant to enforce their policy."

He is therefore working to set up a "collective mechanism" with the industry to monitor and police deforestation.

The veteran campaigner has seen a "transparency revolution" among the palm oil companies, with the large companies now publishing the identities of their suppliers and their mill locations. "That's good," he says. "That's really helpful. The next step is to use the information to enforce their own policy."

Meanwhile, with Singapore skies still all clear at this time of the year, Mr Sun is putting on hold his crowdfunding campaign for now.

"Without the haze, (there is) minimal momentum sadly," he says.

For many in Indonesia, however, the effects of the devastating 2015 haze linger on.

Ihsan Kusnaidi, a volunteer fire crew leader in Langgam village in Sumatra, had to move his family to another village an hour away by car because his daughter, who was barely a year old, fell ill from the haze.

Till today, the girl's coughing has not gone away. "I have been going to the clinic with her for regular checkups," he says. "She has symptoms of asthma."


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