Malaysia declared a state of emergency in some areas after air pollution from illegal burning of forests and peat lands in Indonesia reached hazardous levels, while Singapore breathed easier as winds shifted direction.
Prime Minister Najib Razak signed a declaration for Muar and Ledang districts in the southern Johor state with immediate effect after the Air Pollution Index readings reached more than 750, according to a statement today by G. Palanivel, minister for natural resources and environment. Any level above 300 is considered hazardous. Johor borders Singapore. “There should be no outdoor activities and people must stay indoors until further notice in these areas,” Palanivel said in the statement. Muar was the worst affected as of 11 a.m. local time, with the index at 690, according the Department of Environment’s website, and pollution was also at a “hazardous” level in Malacca. Cloud seeding to induce rain will be carried out in the worst-hit areas and schools in Kuala Lumpur and some other areas closed tomorrow, the minister said.
Schools in Singapore canceled activities for the June vacation and stores ran out of protective masks as smoky haze hit dangerous levels, causing a spat with Indonesia over responsibility. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has asked Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to provide evidence if Singaporean or Malaysian companies were responsible for the burning, as suggested by some Indonesian officials.
Singapore yesterday sought “strong, firm, effective” action against local companies that may be involved in illegal burning in Indonesia that led to the city-state’s worst pollution on record.
“I’ve asked the Attorney General to consider what is it that we can do in Singapore if such companies can be proved to have contributed in some way,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters yesterday in the city. “We will do everything that we can do. We will offer no succor or refuge if the actions of the companies have indeed been illegal in Indonesia and impacted on Singapore.”
Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index was at 77 at 4 p.m. local time today, after rising as high as 326 yesterday, according to the National Environment Agency. It reached a record 401 on June 21.
“The improvement in the air quality is due to a change in the direction of the low level winds over Singapore, from South-westerly to southerly, since last night,” according to a statement posted on the NEA’s website. The agency advised people with lung or heart disease to avoid all outdoor activity, while prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion should be minimized by everyone.
There are 17 timber and 15 palm oil companies, including Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd. (WIL), Kuala Lumpur-based Sime Darby Bhd (SIME) and Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd., which have land in areas hit by fires in Sumatra, T. Nirarta Samadhi, an Indonesian government spokesman, said in an e-mail on June 21, citing data from the non-governmental organization World Resources Institute.
“Some hotspots are found within the protected forest, which is within the indicative moratorium area,” Samadhi said.
Government claims that the company known as APRIL is among those responsible for fires in the Riau province aren’t supported by facts, it said in a statement on its website yesterday. The claims don’t correspond with on-the-ground monitoring, and none of the 13 hotspots identified are on APRIL’s land concessions, it said.
Wilmar, Sime Darby
“While there have been a small number of fires within APRIL’s concessions over the past three weeks, all of those fires were spread from fires that began outside our concessions, and all were quickly extinguished by our fire fighting teams,” APRIL said.
Wilmar and Sime Darby Bhd. (SIME), the world’s biggest listed palm oil producer, told Bloomberg they had a zero-burning policy.
“Sime Darby Plantation would like to stress that there are no fires in any of our operating areas in Indonesia,” the company said in a statement on its website. Current reports of hotspots in Riau included an area within the concession lands of PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation, a subsidiary of PT Minamas Gemilang and a Sime Darby company, according to the statement.
Greenpeace International said its analysis of NASA data in Sumatra showed hundreds of hotspots in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies. The non-governmental organization called on Sime Darby and Wilmar to check whether their suppliers are involved in the burning, according to an e-mailed statement yesterday.
One of the companies with fires on its lands is Asia Pulp & Paper, a unit of Sinar Mas Group (SMGZ).
Seven forest fires affected about 200 hectares of land used by APP’s suppliers, Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability at Asia Pulp & Paper Group, said in an e-mail on June 21. The company’s preliminary investigation found that five of the fires were set by the community to clear land for crops, Greenbury said.
“We believe that our zero burning policy, which has been in place since 1996, and our recent zero-deforestation policy are a fundamental part of mitigating forest fires,” she said
Singapore’s Lee said the fires were caused by errant companies and probably not smallholders slashing and burning.
“This is not slash-and-burn,” Shanmugam said yesterday. “This is not an act of nature by itself. These are actions by companies for commercial profit,” he said, adding that Singapore is relying on Indonesia to provide evidence.
The Attorney General expects to know what action Singapore can take against the companies over the weekend, he said.
Disputes over haze flare up regularly between Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the west and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the east.
Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have to discuss the haze when they meet in Brunei, Shanmugam said. Indonesia is the only Asean country that has not ratified the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.
“Given what the Indonesian government has said, of course it will be surprising if the treaty is ratified by the Indonesian parliament” in the next few weeks, said Shanmugam. Singapore has not “ruled out” taking the issue to international and regional forums other than Asean he said.
Indonesia deployed two helicopters for a survey and water bombing and a Casa 212 plane for rain making, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Agency for Disaster Management, said in a text message yesterday.
Officials had detected 60 hot spots in the Riau region of Sumatra, Nugroho said earlier, with 80 percent of those in plantations and 20 percent in forests. Singapore has provided satellite data to help identify the companies responsible for the fires.
Indonesia declared a state of emergency in Riau starting June 21 as the haze worsened, the Jakarta Post said yesterday, citing Tri Budiarto, an emergency response director.
Malaysia will send Environment Minister Palanivel to Indonesia on June 26 to meet officials, the Malaysian government said in an e-mailed statement.
“It is important that Asean nations work together in a spirit of cooperation to tackle this problem,” the government said in the statement. Malaysia has offered to send firefighters to Indonesia if requested.