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Singapore air pollution hits worst level on record, government blames palm oil and timber plantations in Sumatra

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index hit the highest level on record Friday as “haze” driven by fires burning across plantations, peatlands, and forest areas continued to rage across Sumatra.

The air pollution gauge touched a record 400 at 11 am local time on Friday, according to the National Environment Agency’s website. The level is considered “very unhealthy” with people advised to “minimize all outdoor exposure” and wear masks when outside.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed “serious concern” in a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and called for immediate action to control the fires, which Indonesia says are mostly concentrated in concessions held by palm oil and pulp and paper companies. Those companies include several with ties to Singapore, according to multiple sources.

On Friday, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, an official charged with reforming Indonesia’s forestry sector and implementing a program to reduce deforestation, named Sinar Mas and APRIL as two firms whose concessions are registering a large number of hotspots in Riau Province, just south of Singapore. Sinar Mas owns Asia Pulp & Paper, a forestry giant, and Golden Agri-Resources, a palm oil company, while APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings) is a subsidiary of Raja Garuda Mas Group, a diversified conglomerate that owns palm oil and timber companies. Reports are that at least one hotspot has been recorded in a concession held by Singapore-based First Resources.

There are 814 hotspots according to the palm oil boundaries from BAPPEDA data; and 385 fire hotspots inside palm oil concessions with palm oil boundaries from the Ministry of Forestry map. Data on oil palm concessions are not readily available centrally from the Indonesian government. The datasets used for analysis are based on 2006–2008 data compiled by several sources and partially updated by Greenpeace at regular intervals. The ultimate provenance is central and regional government agencies including the National Land Agency (BPN), the Agriculture Agency (DISBUN) and regional planning agencies (BAPPEDA).

Additionally, the Ministry of Forestry has made available partial data on concessions within the Forest Estate (this includes rubber as well as oil palm plantations). Given the lack of sector transparency, the data used for analysis must be understood as partial, best-available information. Maps and cption courtesy of Greenpeace. Click images to enlarge.

But complicating action on the ground is lack of centralized information on concessions in Sumatra. Some of the areas registering hotspots are under permits granted by local governments, rather than the Ministry of Forestry. Furthermore, due to the sprawling nature of companies potentially involved — including a web of subsidiaries, affiliates, and suppliers — it isn’t clear whether the companies know themselves whether fires are burning on their lands. For example, when asked about fires allegedly burning within its concession areas, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) initially said it was waiting for more information, but noted that it has had a zero burn policy since 1996 and a no deforestation policy since this February.

“Hotspot maps are a useful early warning sign, but to understand the source and scale of the fire activity our teams need to verify this on the ground. We are most concerned if the fire is spreading and will have an impact on our investment in plantation resources and the conservation forests we protect,” APP told via email.

“We continue to monitor and tackle any source of fire within and close to our suppliers concessions. Our suppliers provide fire fighting crews in every forest management unit and provide training to local people on how to spot fires and tackle them.”

The pulp and paper giant said that a preliminary investigation indicates that only seven of 74 hotspots in its suppliers’ area in Riau are actually forest fires.

“Our team’s preliminary investigation found that 5 of the fire were set by the community to clear land for crops and 2 cases are still under investigation,” APP told It wasn’t immediately clear what the other 67 hotspots were, but NASA satellite data can pick up heat sources ranging from a pile of trash burning up to brush and forest fires.

APP added that it “remains 100 percent committed to its zero deforestation policy” and said the fires are a wake-up call for the region.

“This year’s forest fires are among the worst on record. We need to focus on finding a solution,” said APP. “We hope that all parties will work together and urgently start a cross sector, multi-stakeholder approach to address this, which includes companies, communities, NGOs and government.”

Nonetheless evidence of fires in concessions that supply APP, whose zero deforestation policy is a first for its sector, as well as areas set aside under Indonesia’s forestry moratorium indicates that more needs to be done to address what has become a chronic problem and a source of political tension in the region. Singapore and Malaysia fear that a prolonged haze could cost their economies billions of dollars in lost business, health impacts, and delayed transportation. The 1997-1998 fires that left more than 8 million hectares charred across Borneo cost 9 billion in economic damages according to the Asian Development Bank. Those fires were exacerbated by dry El Niño conditions, but the root cause was forest clearing for oil palm plantations, which in Indonesia are often financed by companies linked to Malaysia and Indonesia.

NASA MODIS fire hotspots for the past 7 days

Satellite analysis by NGOs — slated for release this weekend — indicates that oil palm plantations are also a key driver of this year’s fires.

“The palm oil sector has been shown to rely on fire clearance,” said a conservationist who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record on behalf of the NGO ahead of the release of its report. “It suits them: the ash [is] good for the trees [and] gets rid of all that ‘waste’ wood.”

Conversion of peatlands for plantations is a particular fire risk — dried peat is a tinderbox and can burn for months, or even years, in the case of underground peat fires. Peat fires are also a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, potentially contributing to even drier conditions — and more haze — in the region in the future.

“Fires across Sumatra are wreaking havoc for millions of people in the region and destroying the climate,” said Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign. “Palm oil producers must immediately deploy fire crews to extinguish these fires. But really cleaning up their act starts with adopting a zero deforestation policy.”

Editor’s note: WRI released some great data shortly after this post went online: Peering Through the Haze: What Data Can Tell Us About the Fires in Indonesia. Here is some of the data:

WRI’s interactive map of the forest fires and concessions.

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