Asia, environment, geography, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore

Getting Singapore’s eateries and companies to switch to #sustainable palm oil

Here is a short digest of news I’ve written for the PM.Haze October Newletter. A full list of past newsletters can be found on the PM.Haze site.

How to fight the haze three times a day

The first part of my news analysis addresses an excellent article, How to fight the haze three times a day, written for the Straits Times by PM.Haze members Tan Yi Han and Maxine Chen. It is headed by this dramatic helicopter shot.

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

Mr Tan Yi Han, 32, is a co-founder of People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), a Singapore-based non-profit organisation empowering people to do their part to help solve the regional haze crisis.

He is driven to help people find their passions, and to shape a society in which every individual stands up for what is right. Mr Tan recently obtained a Master of Science in Environmental Management.

Ms Maxine Chen, 24, is a volunteer with PM Haze. She is inspired by writing and its power to drive positive change.

A lawyer by training, her stories on topics including climate change and sustainable consumption have appeared in, among other places, the environmental science and conservation news site Mongabay.

How to fight the haze three times a day

The article How to fight the haze three times a day reminds us that despite Indonesia’s national moratorium on peatland forest clearing, deforestation continues. Protected peatland forests, home to rare and endangered species like the Sumatran elephants and tigers, are still being illegally cleared and burnt to make way for oil palm plantations.

Each dry season fires race across the peatlands producing masses of smoke and leaving behind a scorched earth ready for the planting of neat rows of oil palms. This smoke is a major contributor to global warming but it is also a toxic mix of harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, cyanide and formaldehyde. It also carries microscopic particles coated with carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Such is its toxicity that in 2015 it forced the closure of all Singapore’s schools and may have caused the early deaths of more than 100,000 people in South-east Asia.

Surveying the problem

Palm oil is present in half the consumer products that we buy (packaged foods and personal care products), it is also the most commonly used cooking oil in Asia.

Last year the survey PM.Haze conducted revealed that 32 out of 33 popular eatery chains in Singapore used cooking oil that contains palm oil.

PM.Haze does not advocate boycotting palm oil but seeks to improve the way palm oil is produced.

The conscious consumer

There is much we can do about this problem. Consumers can adopt several strategies:

  • reduce unnecessary consumption of palm oil and other vegetable oils. Eat less fried food and choose less oily (and healthier) food instead. Reducing demand for vegetable oil is a key step towards driving down the need to clear more land.
  • choose palm oil products certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This certifies the palm oil is from growers that don’t engage in forest clearing and burning. In Singapore, there are already four brands of cooking oil that are RSPO-certified. Also, Ikea Singapore and the Singapore Zoo use sustainable cooking oil in their food outlets.
  • 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.

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 report from the WWF

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that two out of three Singapore brands they contacted failed to respond to a request to disclose their palm oil usage.

WWF Singapore contacted 27 local retailers, manufacturers and food service brands with a survey to assess their buying and sourcing of palm oil. Only 10 companies responded.

Ayam Brand, which uses only certified sustainable palm oil for its canned food products, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which uses palm oil for cooking in its food and beverage outlets, scored highest in the report.

Those not responding included:

  • BreadTalk Crystal Jade
  • Bee Cheng Hiang
  • Dairy Farm
  • Khong Guan
  • Paradise Group
  • Tung Lok
  • Commonwealth Capital brand Soup Spoon, PastaMania and Udders

Since the launch of the campaign, these companies have committed to sustainable palm oil: Bee Cheng Hiang, Commonwealth Capital, Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holding, Paradise Group Holdings, Super Group and Tung Lok.

WWF said the level of “non-discosure and lack of action” among brands in Singapore and Malaysia was higher than the global average.

WWF-Singapore has launched a campaign to get consumers to pressure local brands on their use of palm oil, by sending emails to the companies via https://palmoil.sg.

WWF Singapore observed that unsustainable practices in the palm oil industry are at the root of the transboundary haze and deforestation. It added that, the brands not using sustainable palm oil cited internal factors such as capacity issues and higher costs preventing a switch to sustainable palm oil. Sustainable palm oil options start at less than S$0.01 more per litre.

 

economics, environment, geography, Health, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, travel

Tackling the smoke #haze problem with alternative sustainable #peatland production

In 2015 I was forced to leave Singapore when the smoke haze, mainly from fires burning on Sumatran peatlands, became so heavy it was unhealthy for me to remain. My exit was easy but the people in Sumatra and Kalimantan, particularly Central Kalimantan, were not so fortunate.  All of those in affected areas were living in far higher levels of smoke, without my means to escape.

Understanding the gravity of the problem I began blogging about it.  Shortly after this I met Tan Yi Han Co-Founder at People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze). Yi Han’s clarity, patience and commitment to educate people about this problem was inspiring.

Founded, in 2014, by a group of Singaporeans who believe that everyone can play a part in bringing an end to trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia, PM.Haze aims to empower people with the knowledge, values and skills needed to build a broad social movement to stop the haze and ensure clean air for present and future generations.

Exacerbated by the El Nino conditions of 2015 the smoke haze problem was grave. Harvard researchers and their colleagues estimated that the smoke caused more than 100,000 deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Most directly affected were infants and those with pre-existing cardio-pulmonary conditions. Beyond this the impact on global warming was already well established.

Click here for the latest El Nino watch updates

Should El Nino take off in 2017 further smoke haze can be expected, despite the moratorium on further peatland plantation development.   The Australian Bureau of Meteorology on 23 May, 2017, reported that,”The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) remains neutral. With the tropical Pacific Ocean warmer than average, and around half the international climate models reaching El Niño levels later in the year, development of El Niño in 2017 cannot be ruled out. The Bureau’s ENSO Outlook remains at El Niño WATCH, meaning there is around a 50% chance—double the normal likelihood—of El Niño developing in 2017.”

Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP)

It was with great interest that I joined members PM.Haze on the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) 0n Thursday 18 May. Until this point most of what I knew about peat was theoretical.  I had played on the margins of a small peatland swamp as a child, walked through a peatland forest in East Kalimantan back in 1988 and recently took a helicopter flight over peatlands in Riau Province with a PM.Haze. This was my first opportunity to have a close-up view.

Tan Yi Han (right) co-founder of PM.Haze with Taufik Rahman from WALHI Riau

 

Ng Iris and Zhang Wen, Executive Director PM.Haze, travelling to Sungai Tohor

 

PEEP participants, media teams and community members from Tebing Tinggi Timur, Sungai Tohor.

The Program

Our journey took us to the Sungai Tohor area on Tebing Tinggi island, Riau Province.

 

Tebing Tinggi is a peat island formed by slow accumulation over the past 8000 years, since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. This process has been part of the coastal stabilisation of Riau province.

Beginning in 2007 two companies began cutting canals through the island and draining the peatland for plantations of sago palm and pulpwood for paper production.

This resulted in land, comprising the concessions issued to the companies, being taken from the local community. Now as the peatland dried out, there was not only subsidence of the land but it also became more vulnerable to fire. In 2014, fires burned across the island.

These coconut palms show the effects of land subsidence.
Peatland where fires raged in 2014, now covered with secondary re-growth, a climax community of ferns and small trees.

After the fires the community invited Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to visit the island.  Villagers presented him with an alternative peat management plan leading to the revocation of one company’s license. The land was returned to the community for sustainable management. We visited this land which is now being rehydrated through the building of canal blocks. PM.Haze members and those joining PEEP helped build the latest canal block.

Canal block under construction. Peat filled bags give it strength.
Zhang Wen digging peat to fill bags used in the canal block
Low Ying Hui filling bags with peat soil
Ng Iris, tying up a peat soil bag.
L to R  – Darlene Kasten, Aurélie Charmeau, Ng Iris and Tan Yi Han who is explaining the canal blocking process

Future plans

Attempting to develop self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of sago palms is a major objective of the village.  At present raw sago starch is sent to Malaysia for further processing. Current plans are to explore ways of value adding, perhaps expanding the existing cottage industry that is already producing sago noodles and sago snacks.  The community hopes to increase its income by adding value to sago production.

Splitting lengths of sago palm trunk before extracting the starch.
Feeding lengths of sago palm into the milling machine. The milled sago is then washed to extract starch.

 

Sago palm bark and fibre residue present both an environmental challenge and a business opportunity.
Sago starch is cooked for processing into sago noodles in a simple cottage industry.
Preparing the starch dough
A noodle cutting tool ready for use.

The challenges confronting the people of Tebing Tinggi can be found throughout the peatland of Indonesia.  One area where people have also confronted the problem of peatland drainage and wild fires producing toxic levels of smoke, is in the Pelangkaraya area of Central Kalimantan.

For more on PEEP visit the PM.Haze Blog

Ranu Welum Foundation

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) of 2016 I also met Emmanuela Shinta, a young Dayak leader.  She was instrumental in organising young volunteers to help villagers affected by the smoke, bringing medical services, supplies and health education during the 2015 peatland fires. In May 2016, she and others founded the Ranu Welum Foundation which continues grassroots education on the smoke haze problem

With the help of Emmanuela Shinta I plan to write more on this in the future.

environment, geography, Health, Indonesia

The #smokehaze is likely to remain a problem in the face of an ineffective #Indonesian response

Smoke haze from peat fires in Sumatra, Singapore October 1, 2015.
Smoke haze from peat fires in Sumatra, Singapore October 1, 2015.

Channel News Asia reports Indonesia’s Minister of the Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya has been critical of recent comment from Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli who is reported as saying , on 15 April, that “Agro-forestry companies should take full responsibility for fire prevention and mitigation in their concessions.” Speaking at the at at the third Sustainable World Resources dialogue he went on to say, ” There must not be a repeat of last year’s fires, because the prolonged season of dryness allowed fires to burn uncontrollably and in a very widespread way”.

He added, “Companies practising unsustainable production that affect us with haze must know that their actions will not lead to profitability and that they will have to face the consequences sooner or later.”

In this El Nino year the Minister’s comments are timely.  They also and stand as a fair warning that given the lack of enforcement, apparent in the Indonesia’s response to extensive burning of cleared peatlands, smoke haze is most likely to return in dry season.

In response to Masagos Zulkifli’s comments Dr Nurbaya is reported as claiming that the Indonesian government has taken substantial steps to prevent land and forest fires.  Asserting national sovereignty, and possibly playing to the domestic audience,  she added that such steps are not because of pressure from other countries.

Dr Nurbaya insisted that, “We have been consistent in sticking to our part of the bargain, especially by attempting to prevent the recurrence of land and forest fires and by consistently enforcing the law. So, my question is – what has the Singaporean government done? I feel that they should focus on their own role.”  She continued insisting that, “There is really no need to comment too much on the part Indonesia is currently playing. However, with all due respect to my Singaporean counterpart, what are they doing? And where has it got them?”

Channel News Asia summarises her comments as asserting that, “the Indonesian government has taken action against companies – especially those headquartered in Singapore – found to be negligent in handling land and forest fires that occur on their concessions.” She added, “This is just one example of how we are not shirking our responsibilities and are doing what is expected of us.”

In conclusion she expressed appreciation for  “the input provided to us by our Singaporean neighbours,” observing that we “cherish our bilateral partnership,” but added “I would respectfully ask them to stop making so many comments, particularly when it comes to the fires and haze-related issues. We each have our own part to play and we should focus on carrying this out.”

On Friday, the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency Nazir Foead had also pledged at the 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources that there is “zero chance” that any haze this year will be as severe as last year’s.

To make matters worse last year last year, Indonesia increased biodiesel subsidies and raised the minimum bio content in diesel fuel to 15% from 10%. According to Reuters, this year the bio fuel content in diesel is supposed to be increased to 20% in 2016 rising to 30% in 2020. Ironically Indonesia will struggle to maintain this program since rude oil prices have dropped to a 12-year low of around $28 a barrel and palm oil prices have increased making palm oil less attractive for blending.

Whatever the blend that prevails, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Singapore and Malaysia will face substantial smoke haze one the 2016 dry season arrives.