Three companies with offices in Singapore linked to forest fires causing haze

Children get a dose of oxygen from a Red Cross volunteer at a village in Jambi on Sept 24, 2019. PHOTO: AFP
The National Environment Agency said it is monitoring the current haze situation closely, although it has not taken any action against firms under the Republic's Transboundary Haze Pollution Act this year. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - The haze is back. And as forest fires rage on in Indonesia, a Singapore connection has surfaced.

Three Indonesian firms with offices in Singapore have been linked to the haze-belching fires.

One company, Hutan Ketapang Industri, sealed off by the Indonesian authorities after fires were discovered on its land, has links to Singapore-based Sampoerna Agri Resources.

The other two - pulp giants Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and April, have also been linked to the haze-belching fires by Indonesian news site foresthints. Both have offices in the Republic.

Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) said it is monitoring the current haze situation closely, although it has not taken any action against firms under the Republic's Transboundary Haze Pollution Act this year.

The Act targets those responsible for causing or condoning fires if burning results in unhealthy levels of haze in Singapore - defined as a 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) value of 101 or greater for 24 hours or more.

Those guilty can be fined up to $100,000 a day, capped at a total of $2 million. No fines have been meted out since the law was passed in 2014.

An NEA spokesman said: "NEA is monitoring the situation closely, and will provide updates as appropriate if we commence investigations on any company under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act."

In Indonesia, however, concession areas owned by more than 50 companies have been sealed off after fires were detected there.

In Singapore, after days of hazy conditions, rain could bring some relief.

The weatherman said on Tuesday evening (Sept 24) that thundery showers can be expected in Singapore and showers may also occur over Sumatra - where most of the smoke-belching fires are - over the next few days.

However, the NEA said that although recent showers may have helped to improve the haze situation, the hot spot activities in Sumatra are expected to persist, and Singapore may still experience occasional slightly hazy conditions over the next few days if the prevailing winds blow in smoke haze from Sumatra.

At 11pm on Tuesday, the one-hour PM2.5 reading was 19-26 micrograms per cubic m, in the normal range, while the 24-hour PSI reading was 76-90, in the moderate band.

Singapore connections to the firms linked to Indonesia's fires

Three firms with plantations on fire have been singled out by various sources as having offices in Singapore.

On Sunday, Indonesian environmental news site foresthints published an article saying that fires have been detected in APP and April concession areas.

Citing satellite data and information from the Indonesian government, the article said fires had been detected in APP concession areas in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan islands.

In Sumatra's Jambi province, fires had been detected in Wira Karya Sakti (WKS), an APP pulpwood concession area, according to the article. It also said the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry had sealed the concession area in West Kalimantan.

An APP spokesman said there had been hot spots within 5km of its concession boundaries in WKS recently, although there were none at present.

"A large majority were within areas allocated to the community," said a spokesman.

When a concession area has been sealed off by the Indonesian authorities, the directorate general of law enforcement from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry would start a preliminary investigation and secure all the evidence on the ground with the help of local police, he said.

All APP suppliers must strictly adhere to the company's no burning policy and fire policies, he stressed.

"Should a supplier be found be not adhering to this, they will be first suspended pending an investigation. If there is sufficient evidence of this practice, the supplier will be terminated immediately."

The foresthints article also said that one of the April-owned concession areas, as well as that of one of its key suppliers in Sumatra's Riau province, had also been sealed by the Indonesian government in August due to fires there.

In response, April said that it reports all fires on its concession areas and continues to work with local police in reporting and investigating every fire incident.

"This includes supporting investigations carried out by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry," said an April spokesman, adding that work is done to protect burnt areas in the concession area from further damage after police investigations.

The third company with links to the haze, and a Singapore office, is Sampoerna Agri Resources.

Earlier in September, Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar had named Hutan Ketapang Industri as the Singapore-affiliated firm that was among firms with plantations sealed off by the Indonesian government after fires were detected in their concession areas.

Hutan Ketapang Industri is a West Kalimantan province-based rubber plantation subsidiary of another Indonesian company, Sungai Menang, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Indonesia's Sampoerna Agro.

Singapore-based Sampoerna Agri Resources owns two-thirds of Sampoerna Agro.

When The Straits Times visited the Haw Par Centre office of Sampoerna Agri Resources on Tuesday afternoon, there were only three staff present.

One of them said the company is different from its parent company in that it is an investment holding company that is not involved in agriculture. The firm did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

A history of fire

APP and April are no strangers to accusations of fire on their concessions.

As two of Indonesia's largest pulpwood companies, both have often been implicated in causing the perennial scourge of haze that had long plagued countries in the region.

In 2015, APP, in particular, was singled out for fires on its concession areas.

This prompted the Singapore Environment Council to temporarily suspended the green label of APP's exclusive distributor in Singapore, Universal Sovereign Trading. Following the suspension, supermarket chains pulled all APP items off their shelves, including popular brands such as Paseo.

The green label was given back to APP in May this year.

SEC said in a statement then that it had awarded APP its enhanced Singapore Green Labelling Scheme certification (SGLS+), which is supposed to be more rigorous than its previous certification requirements for fire and peatland management.

On Sept 19, SEC said that companies certified by SGLS+ are fire-free. It said it determines this by a range of factors, including whether the firms have robust fire management practices in place to quickly suppress fire outbreaks when they occur

"On top of that, we have regular audits and surveillance to ensure that certified concessions continue with best practices," said the spokesman.

"SEC is confident that the SGLS+ certified concessions are fire-free during this period based on publicly available data/images and on-ground checks."

A recent check by The Straits Times at multiple outlets of supermarket chain FairPrice revealed no APP products on the shelves.

Asked if it would be carrying APP products again, a FairPrice spokesman said it is committed to making available paper products from sustainable sources.

"FairPrice is continually sourcing for suitable products and will conduct the necessary assessments to enhance our extensive range of paper products," she said.

She added FairPrice housebrand paper products in stores have attained certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests.

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