Fighting the haze while the skies are clear
By Sharanya Pillai
The sky was dirty yellow, heavy with the smell of peatlands burning, as the PSI peaked 2600 in parts of Indonesia last year. Singapore was also hit with record levels of haze, and our frustration spilled even spilled into social media, lives, manifesting as memes:
But once the skies cleared, the chatter died down and an uncomfortable silence ensued. Perhaps it’s an all too familiar routine we’ve been through every year, since the 1970s.
Last Saturday (April 23), some 50 activists, academics and ordinary citizens came together to address this stalemate in tackling the haze. Co-organised by PM.Haze and the Singapore Institute of Management, the People’s Forum on Haze 2.0 saw a lively discussion on how we can act pre-emptively before yet another round of haze strikes. Here are four learning points:
1. Lives are at stake on ground zero
The forum kicked off with a screening of Heart of the Haze, a Channel NewsAsia documentary filmed in Kalimantan at the height of the crisis last year. Participants learned how Kalimantan residents were misled into thinking that flimsy surgical masks offer sufficient protection from the haze, many unaware of just how dangerous the air quality was.
“Even in the city centre, there was only one way to find out the PSI level – this board in the middle of a roundabout,” Say Xiangyu, producer of the documentary, shared with participants. “But that board had been broken for two months, and I believe it’s still not fixed.”
The haze does not discriminate between young and old; it mercilessly impairs anyone prone to respiratory conditions. As Xiangyu captured in her documentary,, one family even lost their young daughter just two days after she fell sick from the polluted air.
With respiratory illnesses on the rise in affected regions like Kalimantan and South Sumatra, Xiangyu emphasised that there needs to be “more education of the real impacts of the haze and how it really affects health”.
2. And it begins with changing attitudes
Several Indonesian Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are stepping up to educate the villagers about the real impact of the haze. One of them is Nature For Change, which is encouraging Sumatran farmers to reforest the land with fruit trees, rather than continually clearing the land for oil palm. It’s a challenging endeavour, and a long road lies ahead.
“You cannot tell them what to do, they don’t care, because for them it’s about everyday survival,” Mohamed Taher Jumaat, from NFC, shared in a panel discussion. “So one of the things that we want to introduce to the farmers is to love their land. And we’ve seen some of them starting to plant more fruit trees, which is good.”
PM.Haze itself has been studying grassroots efforts closely, and is looking towards supporting and reinforcing the good work.
3. Meanwhile, Singaporeans can still help as consumers
Over half of the products on SIngapore’s supermarket shelves contain palm oil, and by supporting brands that only use sustainable palm oil, Singaporeans can put pressure on major palm oil producers to stop contributing to haze-linked fires.
The exact means of doing this is not as straightforward. The current best means of deducing which brand to support is to look out for the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) label on products, although with its aim of getting as many companies on board, the label comes with its limitations.
But as Stefano Savi, Global Outreach and Engagement Director of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, put it: “It’s important that we do understand that this is not a game of the best players, this is a game of moving the industry forward.”
In addition, PM.Haze co-founder and president Tan Yi Han pointed out that Singaporeans could also influence regional retailers, such as BreadTalk, to go haze-free in sourcing for palm oil.
4. And be wise in our investments
As a regional hub for investments, Singaporeans have many investment options, and as Etelle Higonnet of Waxman Strategies emphasised, this presents an opportunity to support companies that source palm oil sustainably.
“The Singaporean authorities, the banks, the sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, GIC, all of these entities can choose to finance deforestation or choose to finance reforestation,” she said. “And as Singaporeans, you are in a unique position to write not only to your supermarket, but also to these institutions.”
While divestment movements may be a relatively unexplored concept in Singapore, it is worth thinking through if this may be a viable option for us to positively reinforce green behaviour in companies. As Etelle sees it: “If you have an overflowing bathtub, you can scoop the water out. But sometimes, the better solution is to switch off the tap.” Similarly, it is timely for us to assess how we can channel the flow of investments to the right direction.
Ultimately, fighting a problem as complex as the annual haze plaguing Southeast Asia, takes plenty of foresight and long-term planning. It’s instinctive to act on a problem only when its effects are visible, but it’s important for us to act consistently, long before the haze returns.