Environmental groups and observers in Indonesia and Malaysia say Singapore's passage of a law to punish those responsible for transboundary haze pollution will put pressure on rogue firms to prevent open burning.
They say it will be difficult to enforce, but hope it will pressure the Indonesian authorities to also act tougher on those responsible.
Meanwhile, Singapore-listed palm oil companies and local stakeholders say they back the tough new measures.
The law passed on Tuesday penalises firms with fines of up to $100,000 a day, capped at a total of $2 million, for causing unhealthy haze, that is, a Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) value of 101 or greater for 24 hours or more.
It also grants individuals or organisations the option to sue and claim damages from polluters, with no limit set on the amount of damages they can ask for.
"It will give pressure to Indonesia. If one particular company were declared guilty of illegal burning in Singapore, but not guilty in Indonesia, it would make Indonesia look bad," said Mr Zulfahmi of Greenpeace.
Indonesian state prosecutors have lost most legal suits against errant firms because the indictments were weak or the court rulings were flawed, say observers.
Dr Helena Varkkey of Universiti Malaya said the new law may be a more effective way to address haze issues as it will bypass government channels trying to resolve the issue via diplomacy.
"Since the proposed law allows individual lawsuits against companies, it will be able to bypass any 'friction' that might occur between governments," she said.
Mr Sonny Keraf, a former environment minister who is advising President-elect Joko Widodo, said there must be some protocols agreed upon by Indonesia and Singapore that detail how the law can be enforced without infringing on Indonesia's sovereignty.
Mr Khairul Anwar, the mayor of Dumai city in Riau province that was worst affected by last year's haze, supports the law. "Our police here can help find out who burnt the land," he said.
In Singapore, Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources, which own huge swathes of plantation land in Indonesia, say they do not fear the new law.
These major industry players told The Straits Times yesterday that they back efforts to prevent or mitigate the haze.
They said they adopt a strict no-burn policy. This refers to owners who burn off forest to free up land for palm oil plantations, a practice that generates smoke haze across the region.
"Our 'No deforestation, no peat and no exploitation' policy further reinforces our commitment to sustainable palm oil," a Wilmar spokesman said. "We will continue to engage and provide assistance to stakeholders such as suppliers and smallholders in preventing fires because we believe that a collective effort will benefit the entire industry."
Golden Agri-Resources said a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach is the best way to find solutions for the haze issue.
"Sustainable practices have been embedded in our day-to-day operations for years," it noted, claiming to be the first palm oil producer to establish a zero burning policy in 1997.
Neither firm commented on how much it could cost to comply with the new law. Costs could rise and add to the complexity of the landscape in which the firms operate, especially as they work in different nations with varying degrees of strictness on haze.
Environmental groups in Singapore have also welcomed the new law, though some questioned how effective it can be.
The Nature Society Singapore said the law is a step in the right direction to get to the main culprits, but added: "(We) will not have the financial resources to take up a civil lawsuit to go up against the polluter."
Farmer Ivy Singh-Lim, whose business was affected when the PSI hit a record 401 last year, asked if the law has bite overseas. "Can they summon the fellow when they don't even have an extradition treaty?"
This article was first published on August 07, 2014.
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