24 June 2013

Major pulp and palm oil firms say they didn't start wildfires

Indonesia sending 'contradictory signals': S'pore

Mr Shanmugam: 'Before we can take any action (against the firms involved in causing the haze), we need to have evidence.' - PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

[SINGAPORE] Amid contradictory remarks from Indonesian officials about which firms are responsible for starting the wildfires behind the haze blanketing Singapore and Malaysia, major pulp and palm oil firms have defended themselves against initial public allegations of wrongdoing.

Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam said yesterday on the sidelines of a community event that Singapore is getting "contradictory signals" from Indonesia on whether Singapore-linked firms are involved in starting the fires.

"We need clear clarification and a clear statement from Indonesia together with evidence because the companies which have been named all deny any involvement," he said.

With the Singapore Attorney-General looking into what can be done against firms involved in causing the haze, Singapore has to be able to establish the facts at hand.

"Before we can take any action, we need to have evidence. And Indonesia is best-placed to give us the evidence, and we have to ask them for it. We will ask them for it. And ask them to give to us as quickly as possible," noted Mr Shanmugam who is also Law minister.

So far Singapore-linked firms like Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd (April) that has headquarters here, as well as Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources, were reported to have hotspots within their concession areas.

Golden Agri and APP are the palm oil and paper and pulp arms, respectively, of Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas Group. April is part of the Royal Golden Eagle group owned by Indonesian businessman Sukamto Tanoto. However, these companies insist they have practised zero burning policies on their concession areas for years. They also said the fires which were started on surrounding community land had spread to within their concession grounds.

April said three fires on its 20-hectares of concession area had originated from those started on community land.

APP also said that five forest fires on their suppliers' concessions were started by the community to clear land for crops, while two cases are still being investigated.

APP managing director of sustainability Aida Greenbury told BT that while hotspot maps are a useful early warning sign, the source and scale of fires need to be verified on the ground. Out of the 74 hot spots detected on their suppliers' area in Riau province, only seven points were actually forest fires, she pointed out.

Indonesia forestry minister Zulkifli Hasan told reporters on Saturday there was no strong evidence that APP and April were responsible for the fires. "Don't make accusations without prior evidence. To prove this, there needs to be more detailed investigations. We are focused on putting out the fire for now," said Mr Zulkifli.

To date, Indonesia has identified eight firms out of the 14 being investigated for starting the fires. All of them are owned by Malaysian investors like PT Langgam Inti Hibrindo, PT Bhumireksa Nusa Sejati, PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation, PT Udaya Loh Dinawi, PT Adei Plantation, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, PT Multi Gambut Industri and PT Mustika Agro Lestari.

No new companies have been disclosed.

Fires were at first found on concession land said to be linked to First Resources. However, the group yesterday urged the many public interest groups using often outdated information and maps to track down errant companies to cross-check their information with ground verifications because Indonesian concessions may ultimately not be developed.

While the identities of the culprits remain unclear, the haze shrouding Singapore most of last week dissipated over the weekend. The peak Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) readings on Saturday and Sunday eased drastically to 122 and 106, respectively - after registering a "hazardous" 401 last Friday.

The National Environment Agency forecasted the 24-hour PSI on Monday (up till 7pm) to be in the moderate band of between 51 and 100.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday on his rounds distributing N95 masks to residents in rental flats that there were enough face masks for Singaporeans. The Ministry of Health has a stockpile of nine million masks that are being released to the shops. "Keep on working, keep on living, but be ready - if it gets worse, we will know what to do," said Mr Lee.

The clear skies over the weekend restored some normalcy to Singaporeans' activities.

Chief executive officer of realty company Propnex Mohamed Ismail said that appointments to view resale flats, which declined in the middle of the week, picked up over the weekend because the haze cleared. "The haze definitely has had an impact, because people try to avoid going out especially if there's no urgency to make a decision," he noted. "If it continues to worsen, it would impact sales volume."

At his doorstop interview yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said the haze could affect Singapore's image and economy. A conference on global nuclear policy scheduled for tomorrow which Mr Shanmugam was due to open with a keynote address was cancelled because of concerns the haze would pose to the health of several prominent but elderly attendees.

"I think our tourist industry ... will be feeling the impact and it, of course, will feed back into other aspects of the economy very quickly," added Mr Shanmugam.

 (The Business Times, 24 Jun 13) BY LYNN KAN