How to fight haze three times a day

Smoke rising from clearings in Indonesia's Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu Biosphere Reserve in February this year. The protected forest was being cleared illegally to make way for plantations.
Smoke rising from clearings in Indonesia's Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu Biosphere Reserve in February this year. The protected forest was being cleared illegally to make way for plantations.PHOTO: COURTESY OF PM HAZE

Consume less fried food, choose haze-free palm oil and encourage others to do so, too

From up in the air, Indonesia's Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu Biosphere Reserve is a scene straight out of an epic nature documentary: lush green islands dot shimmering blue lakes.

This peat swamp forest is home to rare and endangered species such as the Malayan tapir and Sumatran elephant. The Sumatran tiger, too, can be found there. Its numbers have dwindled to as few as 400 individuals within the last remaining patches of forest in Sumatra.

But as our chopper hovered over the nature reserve during a research trip in February this year, we sat paralysed with shock. A blanket of grey smoke was rising from black and brown clearings in the forest.

Next to the burnt patches we saw neat rows of crops - the unmistakable sign of a plantation. This supposedly protected forest was being cleared illegally and burnt to make way for plantations.

Although we in Singapore have been enjoying clear skies this year because winds have not blown the pollutants our way, the root of the haze - uncontrolled large-scale fires - persists.

And the impact is devastating.

HOW HAZE CAN HARM

Two years ago, in September 2015, Singapore was hit with an intense haze that forced the closure of all primary and secondary schools for a day. That same year, Harvard and Columbia University published a study showing how the haze may have caused the early deaths of more than 100,000 people in South-east Asia that year.

That year, the region was plagued with the worst haze on record, as warmer and drier weather caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon resulted in the forests in Indonesia burning harder and for a longer time. Most of the fires were concentrated in the South Sumatra province, where large swaths of peatlands are located.

The haze is a toxic mix of harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, cyanide and formaldehyde, as well as microscopic particles coated with carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

It is also a massive contributor to global warming. In 2015 alone, Indonesia's forest fires generated around 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gases - roughly the amount Germany produces in a year.

But as we complain about the haze giving us headaches and burning eyes, the fact is that a portion of the money we pay for fried curry puff could have funded the deforestation in Sumatra, the early deaths in Kalimantan and the pollution that hangs over Singapore.

The reason is palm oil.

While large palm oil and paper companies have been put under heavy scrutiny in recent years, numerous mid-level palm oil operations remain under the radar even as they commit blatant abuse like clearing protected forests.

INGREDIENT FOR HAZE

Besides being present in half of all consumer products that we buy (think packaged foods and personal care products), palm oil is also the most commonly used cooking oil in Asia.

A survey our organisation, People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), a Singapore non-profit, conducted last year revealed that 32 out of 33 popular eatery chains in Singapore used cooking oil that contains palm oil.

For the growers, oil palm is also a favourite - oil palm fruits can be harvested for around 25 years before palms need to be replanted.

The huge demand for palm oil has created a race to clear land for oil palm plantations, making it the No. 1 driver of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. From 2006 to 2010, oil palm was responsible for half of the deforestation in Indonesia and a third of deforestation in Malaysia.

Burning is the cheapest way to clear land. But even if fire is not used, the landscape becomes fire-prone when forests make way for plantations.

A pristine forest is like a woman's long, luscious hair. After a shower, it takes a long time to dry. Once the forest has been cut down, it resembles the bald head of a national serviceman, drying in no time at all.

In such dry landscapes, even a carelessly thrown cigarette butt can create a fire that rages out of control.

However, oil palms yield a relatively high amount of oil - up to nine times more compared with an equal area of canola or soya bean crop. Therefore, switching to other crops without changing deforestation practices means farmers would have to clear more forests to obtain the same amount of oil.

Soya bean oil, for example, is one of the main causes of deforestation in South America, threatening precious ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savannah.

For this reason, we do not advocate boycotting palm oil. Instead, we want to improve the way palm oil is produced. And by being a more careful consumer, so can you.

HOW TO BE A CONSCIOUS CONSUMER

First, reduce unnecessary consumption of palm oil and other vegetable oils. Eat less fried food and choose less oily (and healthier) food instead.

Many processed food products such as margarine and potato chips are also heavy users of vegetable oil. Reducing demand for vegetable oil is a key step towards driving down the need to clear more land.

Next, if you do need a certain product with palm oil in it, choose one that uses haze-free palm oil - palm oil produced by growers that do not engage in forest clearing and burning.

Currently, palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the closest to haze-free palm oil.

RSPO is an international non-profit organisation that brings together non-governmental organisations and companies to develop standards for sustainable palm oil, including no burning to clear land and no clearing of primary forests. To be certified, growers must be audited to ensure that they comply with these standards.

In Singapore, there are already four brands of cooking oil that are RSPO-certified. Moreover, two companies use RSPO-certified cooking oil in their eateries - Ikea Singapore and the Singapore Zoo.

For cooking oil in Singapore, the cost difference between RSPO-certified and uncertified palm oil is currently less than 10 per cent.

Third, tell others about the issue. Most of the eateries PM Haze spoke to were not even aware that they were using palm oil and mentioned terms like "vegetable oil" or "tempura oil" - generic names for palm oil.

By reaching out to your favourite eateries, you can encourage them to check if their cooking oil contains palm oil, and if so, whether it is RSPO-certified. With many popular eatery chains maintaining social media platforms and websites, it has never been easier to do so.

You can get more tips on how to take action on pmhaze.org/gohazefree.

Do consumers truly have the power to influence businesses? History has shown that to survive, businesses must respond to consumer demand.

In March last year, the RSPO temporarily suspended palm oil conglomerate IOI Corporation's certification because its deforestation practices violated RSPO's guidelines. In three short months, IOI lost 26 major corporate customers and its share price fell by 18 per cent. Reacting quickly to its consumers' signals, IOI announced that it would work towards deforestation-free practices.

Consumers have the power to spur businesses to minimise negative impacts on the health of our people and planet. Let's demand that businesses act responsibly and go haze-free.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2017, with the headline 'How to fight haze three times a day'. Print Edition | Subscribe