Sukanto Tantoto and Smoke: Old Story

Those who still remember the 2006 smog in Singapore should revisit the news and see that nothing change.

 

The war of fog: industry insists it’s fighting Asian haze

Source: Copyright 2006, Agence France-Presse
Date: October 6, 2006
Byline: Sebastien Blanc
Original URL: Status DEAD

As thick haze chokes Southeast Asia and drifts across the Pacific, the pulp and paper industry, blamed for failing to prevent the burning of vast swathes of Indonesian forest, says it’s doing its best to fight the scourge.

According to Greenpeace, forest clearing for acacia pulpwood and oil palm plantations is the leading cause of illegal fires and suffocating haze which has closed schools, disrupted air traffic and caused widespread breathing problems.

The annual illegal burn-off in Indonesia, which officials have been accused of doing little to stop, sees acrid smoke billow across the region, with Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand usually worst affected.

This week, the haze had also spread 3,600 kilometres (2,250 miles) to smother islands in the western Pacific.

But giant companies like Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd. (APRIL) and Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), among the world’s biggest pulp and paper producers, say they are committed to fighting the fires — even though their plantations keep expanding.

“We use only mechanical methods to clear the land,” said Brad Senders, APRIL fire, safety and aviation manager. “We don’t want to contribute to the smoke and haze.”

Both companies have their headquarters in Singapore and are part of powerful conglomerates — Sinar Mas for APP, Raja Garuda Mas for APRIL — controlled by tycoons.

Sukanto Tanoto, boss of Raja Garuda Mas, which has interests in palm oil, construction and energy, was named as the richest man in Indonesia by Forbes Asia magazine last month.

Net plantable areas under APRIL management cover more than 400,000 hectares (nearly a million acres) and the company’s mill near this city of Pangkalan Kerinci is the second biggest in the world in terms of designed production capacity.

APRIL uses around 9 million cubic meters (nearly 12 million cubic yards) of wood annually for its yearly production capacity of 2 million tons of pulp. APP capacities are similar.

As of the end of June 2006, APRIL says it has planted about 300,000 hectares of acacia, but still acknowledges that 55 percent of the wood it uses comes from natural forests.

This angers conservationists, who are concerned that rare wildlife, such as Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants and birds, face extinction.

“We need the wood as raw material for pulp and paper. Why would we burn it? We do not want charcoal mixed in chips,” APRIL’s Senders, presenting his team of firefighters which is equipped with a water-dropping helicopter.

Dressed in red overalls and equipped with radio transmitters, their goal is to get to fires within two hours of receiving a report, flying by helicopter equipped with portable water pumps, hoses and axes.

“Since 1996, APP has insisted that its fiber suppliers implement a strict no-burn policy,” said company spokeswoman Aida Greenbury.

The company claims to have more than 600 trained fire officers and three full-time fire-suppression helicopters to patrol the forests and control fires.

But environmental groups insist burning is continuing in APRIL and APP concessions.

“We found some evidence that there are hotspots in their concessions and the concessions of their sub-contractors,” Rully Syumanda from Walhi, the Indonesian branch of Friends of the Earth, told AFP.

A coalition of three non-government organisations in Sumatra’s Riau province asserted that from January to August this year, 8,876 hotspots were detected there.

By associated pulp mill, APP contributed to 745 hotspots and APRIL 523, with the remainder unknown or unidentified groups, the coalition said in September.

“Unfortunately, fires still do occur in APP operating areas,” Greenbury concedes.

“These are frequently started illegally by villagers seeking to clear land so that they can plant oil palms, rubber or other crops.”

WWF’s Indonesian species conservation director Nazir Foead agrees that small companies are enticed to burn.

“For small companies doing palm oil, the best and cheapest way is to set fire. You don’t need bulldozers,” he said.

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