The story behind the 2016 haze – and what it says about the future of haze

August 26, 2016. As the people of Singapore woke up to our daily ritual of school/ work and Pokemon Go, we were hit by a choking burnt smell.
Within hours, the 1-hour PM2.5 readings had reached a peak of 216 µg/m³ in the West (equivalent to PSI of 266)! This is the story behind our 2016 haze day… and what it can tell us about haze in the years to come.
2016 Aug 26 haze

The source of the haze was a huge swath of fires raging on peat in Riau Province, Indonesia.

Drone videos from Eyes on the Forest revealed that that much of the area had already been covered to oil palm plantations.

Most of the burnt area was supposed to be protected from development under Indonesia’s moratorium on new forest concessions.

Unfortunately, what was once a natural peat swamp forest was drained and cleared to make way for large-scale illegal oil palm plantations under the company PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (PT APSL) (see image below).

1995 vs 2016
Landsat images from 4 Mar 1995 and 14 Apr 2016 downloaded from http://glovis.usgs.gov/

While there is yet to be evidence of PT APSL deliberately using fire to clear land, it is unlikely that a company operating illegally would invest in expensive mechanical clearing. Drainage of peatland itself also exposes the peat soil, which can burn when dry. Peat fires, whether deliberate or accidental, can easily spread out of control and are almost impossible to extinguish.

In the aftermath of the massive fires, Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources (personal communication) have admitted that PT APSL is one of their suppliers and are looking into this issue. As Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources are among the largest palm oil companies in the world, some of this palm oil could possibly have been exported to Singapore. Since palm oil is in most of our cooked food and half the products in the supermarket, people in Singapore could have been paying money to this haze-causing company and funding its expansion!

Such a problem can be avoided if consumers demand that palm oil used in our products and cooked food is verified haze-free. Haze-free palm oil is produced with no fire, no deforestation, no draining of peatland and no exploitation of local communities – commonly referred to NDPE.

Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources should be commended for their tranparency and commitment to NDPE. Wilmar in 2013 and Golden Agri-Resources in 2014 have requested all suppliers to follow such NDPE policies. But the scale and complexity of the palm oil supply chain means it takes time for these companies to find out who their suppliers are and even more time to check on their suppliers. Thus suppliers like PT APSL have been able to slip under their radar.

Palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is currently the closest we have to verified haze-free palm oil. Plantations and mills that are certified by RSPO undergo audits to ensure they comply with criteria such as zero-burning, protection of primary forests and peatland, and of course legality.

Peat forest destroyed for oil palm. Image source: Aidenvironment, 2006
Peat forest destroyed for oil palm. Image source: Aidenvironment, 2006

Across Indonesia, illegal plantations on peatland are widespread. These illegal plantations on peat are ticking timebombs which can blow up into massive fires when the next dry season comes by.

Without eliminating illegal palm oil from the supply chain, haze will continue to return in the years to come. #gohazefree today