Singapore-based palm oil producers maintain innocence over haze crisis

Speaking at the 6th Asean and Asia Forum on September 12, 2013 are (from left) Mr Dhaval Buch from Unilever Asia, Ms Sharon Chong from Wilmar International, Dr Simon Tay, Chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Mr Aba
Speaking at the 6th Asean and Asia Forum on September 12, 2013 are (from left) Mr Dhaval Buch from Unilever Asia, Ms Sharon Chong from Wilmar International, Dr Simon Tay, Chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Mr Abah Ofon, director of agricultural commodities research from Standard Chartered Research, and Mr Lucas Van Der Walt from Olam International. -- PHOTO: Singapore Institute of International Affairs 

TWO producers and a user of palm oil that took some flak during the haze crisis in June this year have defended themselves at a seminar.

All three are headquartered or based in Singapore.

Commodities firm Wilmar International, which has 183,000 hectares of planted land in Indonesia, said on Thursday that at the height of the haze crisis, the conglomerate considered making its concession maps public, but did not go through with the idea.

The move would have cleared the air over accusations based on outdated maps that the illegal practice of land clearing by burning took place on Wilmar land. Land clearing for planting of palm trees through burning was the main culprit behind the hazardous smog with Pollutant Standards Index levels exceeding 400 that blanketed Singapore and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.

But Ms Sharon Chong, corporate social responsibility senior manager for Wilmar, said the updated maps may not have helped matters as, despite its strict no-burn policy, the firm would still have had to explain the occurence of hotspots on its land.

"We still had fires which came from neighbouring plantations; or natural fires when the weather is too dry; or by accidental fires from cooking or smoking," she said at the 6th Asean and Asia Forum organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. The theme of the forum is The Changing Paradigm: Conflict, Competition, Cooperation.

The company was one of those that environment non-governmental organisation Greenpeace International has fingered as being involved in fire clearing and forest destruction.

Like Wilmar, the Indonesian government was also reluctant to publicly share its own maps which could pinpoint the culprits behind the haze-causing forest fires, as clauses in its Freedom of Information Law specify that data which could reveal the country's wealth of natural resources, such as forests, cannot be made public.

When environment ministers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand met in July to discuss tackling cross-border haze, they agreed that these maps would be shared between governments on a "case-by-case basis", subject to Asean leaders' approval at a summit meeting in October.

Several observers and non-governmental organisations have criticised the limited plan to share maps, saying continued secrecy will impede efforts to prevent illegal fires.

Singapore had earlier pressed for these maps to be made public, so they could be used with satellite data on hot spots to identify and take action against Singapore-linked firms with fires on their lands.

Another palm oil producer told the seminar how it tackles the issue of land clearing by burning.

Mr Lucas Van Der Walt, general manager for corporate responsibility and sustainability in Asia for agri-business firm Olam International, said his company started programmes three years ago to address the root cause behind the burning: poverty.

For instance, it has contributed US$117 million (S$148.2 million) towards pre-financing of farmers with no interest for crop production.

Mr Dhaval Buch of consumer goods giant Unilever Asia, a major user of palm oil, also came to the defence of his company. The senior vice-president for supply chain in Asia and Africa, speaking on the panel on haze, reiterated his firm's commitment to buy only certified palm oil with traceable origins by 2020.

Certified palm oil is extracted from trees that are grown on plantations that are managed and certified in accordance to the standards set by the industry body Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Being able to track where its palm oil comes from will help the company ensure that its products are not associated with slash and burn methods of clearing.

With the global population boom and urbanisation, demand for palm oil has surged from a yearly average of a million tonnes in 1960 to a whopping 50 million tonnes in 2012, said Mr Abah Ofon, director of agricultural commodities research at Standard Chartered Research in Singapore.

He believes companies can meet this demand responsibility - if they are willing to pay for it.

"It all really boils down to cost. I think if we're prepared to pay the price for traceability and certification, that really is part of the solution," he said at the forum.

SIIA chairman Simon Tay said the haze is a good test of what Asean can deliver on something that really matters to its citizens.

"The interest in Asean has really gone up, and despite its present problems, our region will probably outperform the rest of the world. But within the optimism, the challenge is that Asean must really keep its eye on integration," he told The Straits Times.

Integration was the theme of the day, at the forum attended by 300 business leaders, government officials and academics.

Presiding Asean chair Brunei's Second Foreign Minister Pehin Lim stressed the need for Asean states to come together to create a conducive environment to amicably resolve their disputes with China over the South China Sea.

United States ambassador to Asean David Carden, one of the panelists, said his government recognised Asean's role in shaping the world, and reiterated the US' commitment to the region.

casschew@sph.com.sg