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Feng Zengkun
Thursday, Aug 14, 2014

Singapore

Help fund non-govt efforts to map haze

The Straits Times | Feng Zengkun | Thursday, Aug 14, 2014

A view of the haze in Singapore as seen from the Vivo City rooftop on 19 April 2013.

LAST week, Singapore passed a ground-breaking transboundary haze law designed to punish companies that cause fires overseas, leading to haze here.

The Bill received a unanimous vote from lawmakers. But they and other experts also expressed concern about the lack of information to identify errant companies, and noted the problems involved in enforcing penalties against companies with no presence or assets in Singapore.

While these difficulties are not insurmountable, they do underline the challenges ahead and the need for cooperation with regional non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to gather evidence on the ground.

Under the new law, Singapore can fine companies for fires on their land if the resultant haze affects Singapore. Haze in Singapore has been largely blamed on farmers in Indonesia - and some in Malaysia - using fires to clear land during the June-to-October dry season.

To identify errant firms, the authorities can overlay satellite images of fires and smoke over concession or licence maps showing which firms are in charge of land plots. They can also use weather information like wind direction and strength to gauge fires' starting points.

But foreign governments have been reluctant to share official concession maps.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged the point last week, saying in Parliament: "Civil servants tend to be very protective of data, and they say, 'no, we cannot share official concession maps' or 'the maps are not ready'."

The law's provisions help Singapore to sidestep this issue by allowing prosecutors to rely on other, non-official maps deemed reliable by the Singapore authorities.

But such non-government maps are rare, and even those currently available are patchy.

Dr Balakrishnan has said, for instance, that there are maps put online by the non-government environmental group World Resources Institute (WRI).

The WRI's Global Forest Watch initiative gets most of its concession maps for Indonesia from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, which maintains these maps as a matter of public record.

However, the maps are widely regarded as incomplete and out-ofdate in many cases.

The WRI also sources maps from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit consortium of plantation firms, traders, retailers, green groups and others that promote palm oil supply from estates that do not harm wildlife or cut primary and high-conservation-value forests to expand.

After last year's record haze pollution in the region, when several palm oil firms were blamed for the fires, RSPO palm oil-growing members agreed to provide the RSPO with their concession maps by September this year.

But when asked, the RSPO said it did not have current data on the proportion of land its members hold, out of all of the palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

It said only that RSPO-certified plantations of members made up 13 per cent and 20 per cent of the total planted area in Indonesia and Malaysia respectively, based on public, 2012 land use data.

The members also have non-RSPO certified plantations.

In any case, data on plantation land may be of limited use. During the blazes in Indonesia's Riau province in February and March, fires on the two largest burned areas were started outside concessions, or on land occupied by small-scale operators within the concessions. This was the assessment of the Centre for International Forestry Research.

Without comprehensive maps, Singapore will find it difficult to identify the firms in charge of land where fires occur.

And even if companies are prosecuted, it may be difficult to enforce penalties against those with no presence or assets in Singapore, said Singapore Management University's associate professor of law Eugene Tan.

Officers or partners of companies accused under the law will be served notice in person when they enter Singapore. They can also be ordered to stay on the island to assist in investigations. Failure to comply could lead to fines and even jail.

To give the law more bite, Singapore should help fund the efforts of NGOs to come up with accurate concession maps.

According to Dr Balakrishnan, "there's this element called ground-truthing. What you really need is someone with a camera phone on the ground to say that, 'This is the fire and this is occurring here and I saw this person'."

He added: "Information gathering is sometimes best done through a non-government channel, so you don't invoke issues of sovereignty and other political sensitivities, but at the same time sufficient transparency and information is put into the hands of consumers."

Legislation is no silver bullet, and a "full menu of options" is needed, he added.

If nothing else, the law can have a deterrent effect if the threat of penalties can lead to good behaviour. That's because suspected firms' officers face fines or jail sentences when they come to Singapore, if the firms do not help with investigations.

Firms might thus want to make public maps of the concessions they hold, to pre-empt suspicion.

"Companies that refuse to volunteer their maps are likely to come under greater scrutiny from the public and NGOs," reckoned the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

So far, fortunate weather has kept the haze away from Singapore during this dry season. But more than luck - and the new law - will be needed to keep the skies blue.

zengkun@sph.com.sg

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