Blame can't be limited to big firms: Study

A worker trying to douse a fire on his plantation in Indonesia’s Riau province last month. Scientists said mid-level plantation owners must also be held accountable for land-clearing activities that contributed to the haze.

JAKARTA - The trail of accountability for the haze that blanketed Singapore and Malaysia last month is not limited to large plantation companies, according to research by forest scientists in a Bogor institute.

The study by scientists at global environment research outfit World Agroforestry Centre (WAC) found that independent plantation owners also resorted to burning to clear large areas of land in recent weeks.

In the four-page report entitled Hotspots In Riau, Haze Over Singapore, its researchers said these mid-level plantation owners "acquire land under local rules and bring in their own labour to clear the land for oil palm expansion, regardless of the formal land status and in the absence of any permits".

While some acquired land under a transmigration programme, others could be local investors from other provinces who exploited land rules and bought land titles illegally, forest campaigners said.

Most of the attention has been focused on large-scale plantation owners, but forest scientists at the WAC said the mid-level plantation owners cannot be ignored.

Former environmental activist Agus Purnomo, now presidential adviser on climate change, told The Straits Times: "These middle-sized companies may not even have a solid legal structure. They come with some capital, big enough to rent bulldozers or chainsaws, and wreak havoc. If there are many of them like that, then they can cause large-scale impact."

One of the four authors of the WAC report and the centre's chief science adviser, Dr Meine van Noordwijk, said: "We are convinced that (these operators) are a non-negligible part of the overall story."

The study comes as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia gather for a three-day ASEAN haze meeting in Kuala Lumpur beginning on Monday. The meeting, which will also include Brunei and Thailand, will be the 15th time the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution is coming together.

The group was formed in 2006 to help Indonesia combat the annual haze, which has dogged the region for years. Topping the agenda is an urgent push for Indonesia to provide official and accurate land concession maps.

About half the hot spots in Riau province during last month's large-scale burning, which caused the worst haze in Singapore in 16 years, was on land with active permits for land concessions, such as for oil palm and timber. But the remaining were outside such permitted areas.

Some of these are suspected to be caused by independent planters, say activists. The size of their plantations could be between 50ha and 1,000ha.

Of the 24 farmers caught illegally clearing land by burning earlier this month, up to 15 were working for these types of plantations, said Mr Riko Kurniawan, chief of the Riau chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). "Our studies found that most of these (owners) are businessmen from North Sumatra, such as from Medan, and some are former generals or politicians, but we are deepening investigations before releasing names," he said.

The hot spots that occurred outside areas permitted for plantations during the haze last month were found to be in conservation areas such as the Tesso Nilo forest complex, which includes a national park and concession areas.

At least some 21,457ha out of the total 83,068ha of the complex had been encroached on by non-park activities - 15,714ha of it had been cleared illegally for oil palm plantations, the study noted.

Other non-governmental organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have also pointed to these violations. WWF urged oil palm companies to take responsibility for the full supply chain and ensure that fruit or processed oil bought from third-party providers are not fuelling the haze.

Still, forest campaigners said policies need to be adjusted to deal with new actors who acquire land for oil palm expansion under local institutional frameworks that are outside government planning and control.

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