Southeast Asia’s palm oil problem needs cross-border solutions
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Southeast Asia’s palm oil problem needs cross-border solutions

SOUTHEAST ASIA’S palm oil industry — mostly centered in Indonesia and Malaysia — is an environmental and human health menace. Choking pollution from forest fires due to land clearing for palm, pulp and paper plantations is now an annual event in the region. As native forests vanish, so do endangered species like the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.

Additionally, declining carbon sinks like peat swamps and rainforests coupled with rising greenhouse gas emissions connected to different aspects of palm/pulp/paper cultivation are a long-term threat to regional stability.

‘Transboundary haze’: How the smog illuminates

Malaysian academic and author of the book The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage, Helena Varkkey, argues that the regional and thereby global concern regarding the problems related to the palm oil industry is linked to the fact that the smog from Indonesia’s forest fires affects six Southeast Asian countries.

From Inside Indonesia:

After decades of haze, the media attention, civil society activism and academic research on haze has increasingly made the totality of the issues related to the fires and haze clearer to the regional community.

—Dr Helena Varkkey

It must also be noted that while the largest amount of palm, pulp and paper-related pollution may stem from Indonesian territory, many of the companies operating, trading and investing in the Indonesian industries are in fact based in Malaysia and Singapore.

The case of Singapore

As an example, let’s take Singapore. Small, wealthy and highly developed, it is particularly vulnerable to both fires in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia as well as global climate change. When the forest fires erupt, the resultant haze blankets the city-state. An inconvenience and a health risk, this raises the ire of many Singaporeans. But there is another looming danger — less immediate, but potentially much more catastrophic.

A recent article in China Dialogue examines Singapore’s unique position in the region: stable and rich, yet vulnerable to events in much larger neighboring countries. Singapore is also using its monetary and technical advantages to come up with concrete plans and infrastructure that will deal with the challenges of a changing climate.

Some climate-related difficulties a future Singapore may face:

  • Already, nowhere else in the world is hotter and wetter. How will it cope if and when these factors increase?
  • As a wealthy city, Singapore will be a popular destination for regional climate refugees who will flock there from much poorer places.
  • Though a major threat may be at least a couple hundred years away, the low-lying city-state is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels.
  • Though secure in terms of water, Singapore imports 90 percent of its food. A climate-related food crisis in the region may be the most serious challenge it could face.

Efforts and possible solutions to the palm, pulp and paper problem

In essence, there are three categories of actors coming up with solutions and measures to resolve the environmental and health crisis: the governments of the participating countries; the palm, paper and pulp companies themselves; and activist groups/NGOs.

  • Concrete examples in the first category include the government of Singapore offering aircraft, satellite imagery and fire-fighting help to Indonesia during the dry season. This is a helpful and necessary action, but is only combating a symptom, not the cause.
  • The palm oil companies — eager to continue producing their product, but naturally wary of the bad publicity large amounts of smog or photos of orphaned orangutans cause — have initiated programs such as the Fire Free Village Programme, started by Indonesia’s second largest pulp and paper company, the APRIL Group. The program has reportedly been very successful.
  • A recent example from the activist community is Greenpeace Indonesia’s “near real-time” map of Indonesian forest fires, allowing the public to track fires and deforestation caused by industry in the country. Greenpeace announced that the map is to support Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s “plans to restore and protect damaged and at-risk areas”.
  • Finally, there is the RSPO, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which brings together representatives of all levels of the industry, NGOs, governments and consumers in order to work towards a sustainable solution. Reactions from activist communities towards the RSPO have been mixed.