June 21, 2013, was immortalised in Singapore's environmental history as the date when Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 401 – the highest in country's history, beating the previous highest PSI reading of 226 witnessed in 1997 by a comfortable margin. The reason was the fires caused by illegal slash-and-burn land clearance method adopted by poor farmers in Riau province, Sumatra Island, Indonesia. Palm Oil companies in the region came into controversy as a result.
Not only Singapore, Malaysia also declared a state of emergency in some of its southern provinces, as the PSI hit record levels across the region. With haze becoming almost an annual affair in South-east Asia, governments blamed their counter-part in Indonesia for not doing enough to stop the disaster in-spite of having at least three laws prohibiting the burning of forests. Incidentally, Indonesia is the only ASEAN member not to have ratified the 2002 Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution.
The Indonesian government in turn blamed the slash-and-burn farming [cheapest method of clearing forests] prevalent in Riau on the east coast of Sumatra, which is the country's largest producer of palm-oil, and thus a huge revenue-generator.
UK-based media giant The Economist, in its commentary, Hard to deal with, published in July noted, “About half of the land on which the fires are burning in Sumatra belongs to big palm-oil conglomerates, many of them Malaysian-owned. Most have strict no-burning policies, but have been accused of starting fires (or paying others to light them on their behalf) in the past, in order to clear more of their concessions for palm oil.”
Indonesia also blamed eight companies, including Singapore-based Sinar Mas and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL) for much of the fires in Sumatra. As a precautionary measure and to prevent any harmful effects of haze, the sale of N95 masks shot through the roof in Singapore, with many major stores and pharmacies running a stock shortage.
To be sure, three Singapore-based palm-oil producers – Wilmar International, Olam International and Unilever Asia, maintained “innocence over haze crisis” in September in a seminar at the Singapore Institute of International affairs, the Strait Times reported.
With no major governmental action in sight and complete denial by palm-oil companies, many are wondering whether things will be any different this time around, come June?