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Political patronage will protect the pollutants

June 25, 2013

FMT LETTER: From S Ramakrishnan, via e-mail

Minister of Environment G Palanivel has finally named the culprit companies causing haze pollution as coming from Riau and Jambi, Sumatra. Singaporeans and Malaysians are caught red handed under the hazy cloud, hopelessly waiting for rain. Indonesia the culprit causing haze for the past 20 years, seems to be in no hurry to reduce the smog.

Since the air pollutant Index (API) has crossed 750, the health minister says that health risk has increased and need urgent action to combat the hazy problem. Palanivel said the highest API ever recorded in Malaysia was in Sarawak in 1997 with a reading of 860. Hope the Malaysian government is not waiting to reach the worse yet before initiating serious action. But are the three countries shedding crocodile tears and faking their people?

The countries worst affected by the haze are neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysian and Singaporean investors control more than two-thirds of the Indonesian oil palm plantation sector and they have been implicated in the fires alongside local plantations.

These are GLCs and listed companies who continue to slash and burn despite the dire consequences of the haze. These companies are rich and huge and therefore enjoy the protection of their Indonesian patrons from any legal action during their operations and inaction from political patrons from their country of origin.

This explains why Malaysian and Singaporean investors continue to clear land by fire in the interests of cost-efficiency, despite their home countries suffering the worst effects of haze. It won’t be surprising if superannuation funds of Malaysia like EPF, Tabung Haji and LTAT heavily invested in these pollutant companies.

Greenpeace said on Thursday (June 20, 2013) that half the fires hotspots that are causing the severe haze in areas that should be protected by Indonesia’s forest moratorium. Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has vastly expanded its palm oil plantations in the past decade, overtaking Malaysia to become the world’s biggest supplier.

In doing so it has cleared huge swathes of forest and peat-land areas. Authorities who are familiar with haze problem say that political patronage and Indonesian local government officer’s collusion with private companies are hindering efforts to stem the haze problem.

Sources familiar with the problem say that 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% were set by swidden (‘slash-and-burn’) farmers. The smoke from these fires accumulates and travels across international boundaries, resulting in what is known as trans-boundary haze pollution.

The annual haze phenomenon affects the health of some 75 million people and the economies of six Southeast Asian nations, with the worst affected being Malaysia and Singapore. With Malaysian and Singaporean-owned plantations implicated in causing fires alongside with local Indonesian plantations, the involvement of Malaysian and Singaporean firms in this sector, especially since their home countries suffer the worst effects of their practices, becomes of great concern.

Research shows that up to 25% of concessionaires, including local and foreign companies, ignore the rule restricting the planting of oil palm on peat more than three metres deep. All plantation lands and future plantations on peat are essentially illegal because they contravene national laws. But over 50% of new oil palm plantation areas are planned in peat-lands. (Greenpeace)

Major plantation companies including many Malaysian oil palm companies have been found to have obtained licenses for peat-lands in Riau. Many Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean firms have been able to evade official investigation by the Indonesian Government despite repeated indicators of open burning. The widespread practice of patronage politics in this sector has enabled these local, Malaysian and Singaporean companies to act with impunity, even in the face of open burning allegations by civil society.

Since many of these Malaysian and Singaporean companies are GLCs or otherwise linked to powerful political elites back home, it can be inferred that these political elites are more motivated by material gain than protecting the interests of the society suffering from haze. There is little hope to address trans-boundary haze effectively unless the root cause of the system, patronage politics is conclusively addressed.

The writer is a former Senator


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