Jakarta. Palm oil companies, smallholders, and forest communities need to join forces for a long-term solution to eliminate the seasonal haze in Southeast Asia, a multinational lobby group repeated its call in recent webinar.
The region has always been battling with the transboundary haze resulting from devastating forest fires.
In particular, Indonesia saw their worst episode of forest fires in 2015 in which the country lost more than 2.6 million hectares of land to the blaze. In 2019, Indonesia also experienced a severe episode of smoke haze, which blanketed Kalimantan and Sumatra.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) fears the pandemic can cause this year's haze to be even deadlier.
"The wetter weather that we have does not mean we can be complacent. We need to use this time now to not only prepare for the next season but also to implement long-term solutions to eliminate haze," RSPO's chief operating officer Bakhtiar Talhah told the webinar on Wednesday.
"Nobody can do this alone. It is a shared responsibility from growers, the NGOs, but also the end customers to tackle haze," he said.
Smallholders, who account for about 40 percent of the global palm oil production, need to join in the fight as well.
"These are small farmers with small plots of lands and do not have as many resources. The key here is collaboration. [Companies] or IOI cannot do this alone without the community's engagement and smallholders within or outside their concessions. It is everybody," Bakhtiar added.
Last year, zero fires were detected within the RSPO's independent, smaller concessions. From June to September 2020, RSPO has detected over 240,000 hotspots, of which less than a thousand or 0.4 percent were found within RSPO concessions.
Soon, RSPO plans to launch a fire hub to provide higher transparency on its members to combat the issue.
IOI Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil producer with concessions in Malaysia and Indonesia, has not taken their eyes off fire management. The company has launched a three-step guideline for blaze-free concession areas.
According to IOI's sustainability head Surina Binti Ismail, the first stage focuses on fire prevention by detecting hotspots and analyzing the water table. Followed by dealing with the actual fire. The third stage is a post-fire analysis to understand the root cause of the blaze.
IOI has avoided slash-and-burn practices at all costs by using heavy equipment for their concessions since the 1980s. The company loans its equipment to the local communities for land clearing.
Also, Surina said consumer demand for sustainable palm oil could also propel producers to move towards sustainable practices.
Meanwhile, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) pointed out incentives from leading companies, and financial institutions can encourage smallholders to be more sustainable.
"There need to be incentives, both financial and technical support, being provided to smallholders to improve their production practices," WWF's global palm oil lead Michael Guindon said.
Earlier this year, WWF released a scorecard that assessed companies' progress towards sustainable palm oil production.
The average score of the scorecard respondents was 12.6 points out of the possible 22. Although this shows several sustainability commitments are being implemented, more collective action is still necessary, Michael added.