ABOUT THE HAZE
Transboundary haze pollution has been an almost annual occurrence in Southeast Asia since the 1970s, and a source of agony for people in Singapore. Yet, one of the root causes of the haze turns out to be the consumption decisions of consumers including you and me. Below, we explore the causes and impacts of haze, and finally how we can help stop the haze.
The haze is composed of smoke particles from huge peat and vegetation fires that occur mainly in Malaysia and Indonesia and is carried by the wind over hundreds of kilometers, Haze pollution causes health, economic and environmental impacts to several Southeast Asian countries, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, and to a lesser extent Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The uncontrolled expansion of palm oil and paper production is one of the main drivers of the haze.
Fire has traditionally been used as a way for farmers to clear small plots of land to grow crops. In recent decades, companies and mid-level investors have sometimes used fire on a large-scale to clear land for crops such as oil palm. At such a scale, these fires are difficult to control and may spread like wildfire.
Normally, fire is rare in tropical rainforests and only occurs once in times of extreme drought. Unfortunately, Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. In 2012 alone, Indonesia lost primary forest about the size of one million football fields. After the valuable trees are removed, huge expanses of degraded forests are left behind - dry fuel for the next fire.
Peat is a type of soil that is composed mainly of partially decayed plant matter. Peat forms in waterlogged areas known as peat swamps. The peat accumulates year after year at the bottom of the peat swamp to form a layer up to 20m thick. Because of high moisture content, pristine peatlands are naturally protected from burning. Drainage of the peat for human activities such as agriculture and logging results in the drying of the peat. When it is dry, peat can burn in a manner similar to coal. Even a cigarette thrown carelessly on the peat soil may be enough to start a fire. Once the fire starts, it is very difficult to put out as water has to soak through the soil to extinguish the fire below.
Many local and indigenous people in Indonesia lack legal land certificates. Provincial and district-level governments can act independently of the central authority when granting forest conversion permits. Sometimes, they issue permits to land which falls within the boundary of existing concession. Land conflicts arise when multiple owners have claims for the same plot of land and result in less incentive to control fires / investments in fire-fighting capability. There are also reports of fire being used as a weapon.
The Role of Consumers
The uncontrolled expansion of palm oil and paper production is one of the root causes of large-scale use of fire, deforestation, peat drainage and land conflict. Today, Sumatra already lost over 55% of its natural forest.
Palm oil and paper produced in such a way is called “unsustainable” because it causes long-term harm to the environment and people. Palm oil is the most widely used edible oil globally, and is found in half the products in the supermarket, from chocolate to coffee creamer, soap to shampoo. In fact, anything that is labelled “vegetable oil” is most likely palm oil.
We also use and throw away paper every day. In 2014, Singapore generated 1.27 million tonnes of paper and cardboard waste, equivalent to about 50,000 sheets of paper per person.
When we as consumers buy unsustainable palm oil and paper products, we are providing financial support to make the haze worse!
The haze poses significant threat to public health in affected countries. PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) is the dominant type of pollutant during severe haze episodes. These particles are 20 to 30 times smaller than the thickness of a strand of hair. Short-term exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat in healthy individuals, while aggravating existing heart or lung disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even classified fine particulate matter as a cause of lung cancer.
Intense periods of haze often disrupt the economy of affected countries. When it becomes dangerous, schools and airports are shut down, while many businesses suffer. Total economic losses go up to the millions, restraining development in the region.
The palm oil industry creates employment and often lifts people in rural regions out of poverty. But forest clearance has also forced some indigenous peoples off their land, robbed them of their livelihoods and deprived them of essential services like clean water and quality soil.
Rapid deforestation and forest fires are threatening Indonesia’s precious biodiversity. Sumatra’s tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans are now all critically endangered and clinging for survival. Moreover, habitat loss makes these species more vulnerable to poachers, and conflict with humans.
A particular problem for parts of Indonesia is that almost a fifth of palm oil expansion has taken place on peatlands. Peatlands store massive amounts of carbon. Once burning, underground peatland fires are extremely difficult to put out, often releasing smoke and carbon into the atmosphere for months!
Is Palm Oil bad?
Considering the trail of environmental destruction that the palm oil industry has been leaving, it may seem that palm oil is the enemy. But the truth is, palm oil itself isn’t bad. In fact, this versatile oil has a higher yield per hectare and requires less fertilisers and pesticides than any other alternative. Furthermore, it creates employment and often lifts people in rural regions out of poverty.
Therefore, what we need isn’t alternatives to palm oil, but rather sustainably-produced palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an organization that was established to promote the growth and use of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). The market for sustainable palm oil is growing but it still represents only a relatively small fraction of overall palm oil sales. Hence we need to increase the demand for CSPO by creating public awareness and working with all the parties involved.
What YOU can do:
When buying wood-based products, look and ask for FSC certified or 100% recycled pulp and paper options. Products available in the market include:
- Tissue Paper
- Stationery eg. post-its, printing paper
- Musical instruments
When buying products that include palm oil or vegetable oil, look out for these brands:
|Brand / Company Name||Field||Volume of CSPO (t)||% of CSPO of total volume|
|IKEA||Retailers and food service companies||34,000||100%|
|Tesco||Retailers and food service companies||33,811||100%|
|Sainbury’s||Retailers and food service companies||11,212||100%|
|Marks & Spencer||Retailers and food service companies||3,064||100%|
|Waitrose||Retailers and food service companies||2,728||100%|
|Unilever||Manufacturers and processors/traders||1,523,605||100%|
|Johnson & Johnson||Manufacturers and processors/traders||77,800||100%|
|L'Oreal||Manufacturers and processors/traders||61,850||100%|
|Haribo||Manufacturers and processors/traders||3,350||100%|
|Danone||Manufacturers and processors/traders||29,189||100%|
|Nestle||Manufacturers and processors/traders||385,000||94%|
If your favorite brand is not listed above, see how they are doing: WWF Scorecard
Unfortunately in Singapore, while sustainable paper products are already widely available, it is much harder for a consumer to find products labelled as CSPO. Without consumer demand, there is little incentive for companies to switch to using CSPO. Help us to demand sustainable palm oil: TAKE THE PLEDGE