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Oil palm planters unfairly blamed

INFO GAP: Why is there constant negative portrayal of plantation companies and governance in Indonesia in times of haze? Experts tell OOI TEE CHING that there is an increased need for communication of facts and figures on peatland agriculture to mitigate such misunderstandings.

IN the last two months, there had been  news blaming plantation companies for the haze blanketing Singapore and parts of Peninsular Malaysia as a result of peat fires in Indonesia, despite the lack of evidence.

There had also been criticisms of Indonesia’s governance despite efforts by its authorities to dispatch water bombing planes and cloud seeding to beat the peat fires.

“Planters in Malaysia have been practising zero burning for a long time, which means no slash-and-burn to clear up land for new plantings or re-plantings,” said Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Douglas Uggah Embas. 

“In Sarawak, the government issues permits for controlled burning from time to time. Malaysian planters have always benchmarked themselves against best practices in the last two decades.”

The Association of Plantation Investors of Malaysia in Indonesia (Apimi) said Malaysian companies in Indonesia did not use fire to clear land. “I can assure that Apimi members practise zero burning,” said Apimi chairman Datuk Abdul Wahab Maskan.

“Our members observe advisory procedures in managing their plantations and have also been reminded to be prepared for droughts. In a recent meeting, Apimi members have confirmed implementing zero burning and adhere to the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), which prohibits open burning, and emphasised eco-friendly farming practices.”

Wahab said Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and other local authorities had visited TH Plantations estates there and found no evidence of open burning.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association had also responded positively when secretary-general Joko Supriyono said his team prepared 26 fire-fighting units to put out the fires. But like the years before, such efforts by oil palm planters or the Indonesian authorities often go unnoticed.

While many news reports and social media portals alleged oil palm planters were to be blamed for slash-and-burn activities on peatland, Malaysia’s minister Uggah said the truth was far from that.

Peatland is highly flammable during droughts, if not properly managed. Many cash-crop farmers, who cannot afford heavy machinery for land clearing, torch peatland and set off fires that smoulder underground for weeks and months.

Many oil palm planters have been preventing the spread of fire in peatland that may have been set off by cash crop farmers or carelessly ignited by cigarette butts in times of drought.

Uggah, who was former natural resources and environment minister, knows how skillful environmental activists are at seizing opportunities for their own benefit in times of crisis. “Are these independent bodies and activists completely altruistic in their devotion to fight for clean air across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia?

“If so, why is there no acknowledgement or praise for the good work done by the various stakeholders along the peat agriculture value chain in avoiding fires and, therefore, the lack of haze in Sarawak?” he asked.

Oil palm planters in Sarawak invest a lot of money in heavy machinery to clear the land, compact the peat soil and dig up canals. This process keeps the peat soil moist so that the oil palm trees can grow properly and yield to their potential. Incidentally, it also makes the soil less flammable and hinders fire from spreading.

“If not for optimal water table management and infield perimeter drains throughout the peat plantations, and good enforcement against open burning and pumping of water from tube wells during drought, Sarawak might have experienced bad haze this year,” said Uggah, who is also member of parliament for Betong.

Apimi said apart from utmost respect and compliance with the mandatory requirements of ISPO certification in Indonesia, oil palm planters sought diplomatic and sustainable solutions during Asean meetings. “The annual issue on fire and haze must be tackled delicately by all governments involved and be accorded top priority during bilateral or Asean meetings before the drought season in Indonesia,” Wahab said.

“The government-to-government collaboration is important and this can be supported by the business-to-business platforms.”

When asked on the spate of media reports on peat fires in Sumatra, Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) chief executive officer Datuk Dr Makhdzir Mardan concurred with Apimi. 

“Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore should continue to address the transboundary haze problem via community comradeship.

“When peat fires occur, they do not recognise geographical boundaries. The fact that environmental activists are quick to blame planters without any evidence of where and how the fire originated shows that the allegations are not factual.”

By blaming air pollution on oil palm planters and ignoring the evidence that economic development leads to better environmental protection, Makhdzir said it was questionable whether these activists’ true commitment was to the environment or to erection of trade barriers to benefit rival oil crop farmers.

Makhdzir highlighted that MPOA and Indonesian Palm Oil Association had shared concerns over rising trade barriers against oil palm and indirect moves to curb exports of the commodity.

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