There’s no doubt that ongoing forest fires are a crisis for Indonesia. The first step towards a solution is the acceptance of responsibility by palm oil and pulp and paper corporations

When choking yellow haze from Indonesia’s ongoing forest fires made Singapore’s air quality dangerous, Singapore began legal action against companies it felt to be responsible for the polluting fires. Singapore was trying to do what Indonesia has failed to: put enough economic pressure on paper and palm oil industries to stop the age-old practices of slash-and-burn agriculture and land clearing that contribute to the fires. But a lack of completely reliable data has always made pinpointing the exact causes of individual fires difficult.

Some studies have pinned the blame for fires not as much on large corporations as on small farm holders, who produce around 40% of Indonesia’s palm oil. The Indonesian government has actually said that it wants big palm oil companies to go back on their “no deforestation” pledges because it purportedly hurts these small farm holders who can’t afford sustainable forestry practices.

Yet Doug Boucher, director of climate research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC, says two studies, one published by Conservation Letters in 2013 and the other published by Environmental Research Letters in 2011, found that big companies are on balance causing the lion’s share of deforestation because they prefer to develop large concessions in forested areas rather than expand on pre-cleared land. Blaming smallholders is part of an old story that pins eco-devastation on poor people, Boucher says.

“The evidence shows,” Boucher says in a recent blog post, “that if we keep on repeating the 20th-century narrative about the causes of deforestation, we’re blaming the wrong people and giving the large and mid-sized companies a pass.”

Companies are accused of developing forested areas

From one perspective it would seem that the large palm oil companies are trying to clean up their act: the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (POP), which five of the biggest companies in the palm oil sector signed in 2014, offered greater protection for peatlands and other high carbon stock (HCS) forests than the government had been offering. (In mid-November though, the government did go farther than it previously had, by banning both “peatlands destruction” and the planting of newly burned areas with oil palm trees.)

In signing the POP, companies committed to stopping the use of fire in their operations and throughout their supply chains. In addition, in mid-November Golden Agri Resources (GAR) launched a peatland rehabilitation project at one of its large concessions in West Kalimantan. As part of its POP promises GAR said that by the end of this year it would achieve 100% traceability of oil palm fruits from harvest to crushing at mills. GAR also promised that its commitments, outlined in the GAR Environmental and Social Policy, would include an effort to help smallholders increase current yields, reducing their need to clear new land with fire.

“Through our Social and Environmental Policy and our commitment to peat rehabilitation, GAR is demonstrating that economic development and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand,” says Agus Purnomo, GAR’s manager and director of sustainability. Earlier in 2015, pulp and paper companies Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April) and APP took steps to slow deforestation – April with a zero deforestation policy, and APP by retiring 700 hectares of plantation areas.

Yet these measures did little to prevent this year’s record-breaking 127,000 fires, which have destroyed precious habitat and released around 1.6bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent. And while the Indonesian government banned peatland development, it seems that aggressive enforcement of this and other rules to prevent fires is lacking. While Boucher agrees that the Indonesian government must do more, and there is no simple solution, he says passing the blame must end.

“The real first step is taking responsibility – corporations should take responsibility for fires on their own lands,” Boucher says. “Further up the supply chain traders need to buy from those companies that do take responsibility, and [snack-manufacturing] companies need to buy from those traders. Shifting the responsibility – that’s not how ethical corporations behave.”

deforestation  Indonesia  haze  Singapore  air pollution 

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