Singapore taking action against firms behind forest fires

An aerial view of a forest fire burning near the village of Bokor, Meranti Islands regency, Riau province, Indonesia, on March 15, 2016.
An aerial view of a forest fire burning near the village of Bokor, Meranti Islands regency, Riau province, Indonesia, on March 15, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore is taking action under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act against companies that started fires or let their concessions burn, and contributed to last year's haze, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli has said.

It has given notices to six of these Indonesia-based firms, asking them to explain steps they are taking to put out and prevent fires on their land. Two have replied. A director of one of the four firms that have yet to reply has also been served with a notice to give information on his firm's move to mitigate fires on its land and prevent a repeat of last year's haze.

"He has left (Singapore), but is required to return," Mr Masagos told reporters on Tuesday night.

"Should he not return, he would have violated our laws," he said, adding that Singapore can arrest him if he returns later than the date stipulated in the notice.

Mr Masagos declined to disclose the name of the director or his firm, but said he can be detained in Singapore if he fails to give the required information. "We must not let companies get away with their most egregious acts," Mr Masagos added.

He made these points when asked by Singapore reporters about his Indonesian counterpart's remarks that asked what Singapore had done to combat forest fires. Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar had told news site Foresthints.news last week that her country had been trying to prevent the recurrence of land and forest fires, and consistently enforcing the law. "My question is - what has the Singaporean Government done? I feel they should focus on their own role," she was quoted as saying.

Singapore experts, like Dr Mustafa Izzuddin of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said her comments, made "in that spirit of national pride", seemed directed at her home audience.

Dr Jonatan Lassa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that while Indonesia has committed to map hot spots, it needs to build structures like incident command systems on the ground to follow up and take action where needed.

Mr Masagos, in his media interview, also noted Singapore's good ties with Indonesia on many fronts, saying both are working together.

But the haze is a complex issue that has to be tackled not just bilaterally, but also at the Asean and regional level. For instance, Singapore led an Asean programme to make people more aware of what they can do to manage and restore peatland, on which most forest fires take place.

The six companies given notice by the National Environment Agency include Singapore-listed Asia Pulp and Paper, which has been asked about steps its subsidiaries and Indonesian suppliers are taking to put out fires in their concessions.

"We are now looking at them to see how we are going to move forward," Mr Masagos said. He declined to say more as investigations are ongoing. "The message to everybody is: Whether you are Singaporean, whether you are a foreigner, if you violate our laws, we will apply the law to its full extent."

Mr Chris Cheng of volunteer group People's Movement to Stop Haze called on firms to produce or buy palm oil and paper that are verified "haze-free". He added: "Our financial institutions can also ensure they do not lend to or invest in potential haze-causing companies."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore taking action against firms behind forest fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe