Greenpeace blames Malaysia oil firm for Indonesia’s haze

A villager gets oxygen help from a Red Cross volunteer in Jambi on Tuesday. Blazes have been spewing toxic haze across Southeast Asia. (AFP)
Updated 24 September 2019

Greenpeace blames Malaysia oil firm for Indonesia’s haze

  • Ecological group says companies responsible for burned lands go unpunished

KUALA LUMPUR: International environmental group Greenpeace on Tuesday blamed a Malaysian-owned palm oil company as among the 10 palm oil companies whose concessions had the largest burned area, significantly contributing to the Indonesian haze. 

According to the data provided by Greenpeace, Genting Plantation’s subsidiary PT Globalindo Agung Lestari at Central Kalimantan was responsible for 5,000 hectares of burned land between 2015 and 2018. All ten companies listed have never received any serious civil or administrative sanctions from the government.

Genting Plantation is the plantation arm of the billion-dollar Malaysian company Genting Group. On its website, Genting Plantation states that it owns more than a dozen estates in west, central and south Kalimantan. The company is certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and claimed that it has adopted a variety of sustainability measures including a zero burning policy.

 “The Indonesian government has not revoked a single palm oil license due to these forest fires, nor has it given any other serious sanctions to these 10 companies,” said Greenpeace. 

Greenpeace also revealed the list of other palm oil and pulp companies, the majority of which have gone unpunished despite being responsible for the burned lands in Sumatra and Kalimantan between 2015 and 2018. Through the official government’s “burn scar” data, Greenpeace Indonesia analyzed that more than 3.4 million hectares of land burned between 2015 and 2018.

This year, thousands of hotspots in Kalimantan and Sumatra have affected 328,724 hectares of forest and farm land, according to data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency. In the last three weeks, the heavy smoke fumes from Indonesia’s forest fires have affected neighboring countries Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines. 

In Sumatra’s ground zero, the skies turned blood red as the air pollutants absorbed the sunlight. The Indonesian government declared on Monday a state of emergency for Sumatra as the air pollution index exceeded 500.

Since 1997, forest fires have become an annual occurrence due to the use of “slash and burn” techniques by residents and plantation companies when clearing lands. The method is cheap but causes severe damage to the environment. The prolonged dry season this year only intensified the burning.

The findings from the analysis contrast sharply with Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo’s claims that the government has led a crackdown against illegal burnings. “Stopping this recurring fire crisis should have been at the top of the government’s agenda since 2015,” said Kiki Taufik, global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia forests campaign.

“But our findings show the reality: Empty words and weak and inconsistent law enforcement against companies. Jokowi and his ministers must immediately remove licenses from companies with fires on their land,” he added.

In Malaysia, expensive and large-scale cloud seedings only managed to relieve the situation short-term. The transboundary haze continues to be a major headache for Indonesia, Malaysia and its neighboring countries. 

“Tackling forest fires is not only Indonesia’s responsibility alone,” said Greenpeace Malaysia campaigner Heng Kiah Chun. 

Despite previous effort to enact the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, ASEAN leaders have failed to address the annual crisis.

Chun urged the Malaysian and Indonesian governments to cooperate and tackle the long-standing problem of transboundary haze.

“Both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments need to look at where the fires are burning, why, and who is behind them to hold the main culprits behind the fires accountable, especially now that haze from Indonesian forest fires are spreading beyond the country’s boundaries,” he added.

Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

Updated 25 min 13 sec ago

Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

  • People are dying, not from the war, but the toxic air they breathe in
  • Research group State of Global Air says more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed due to the pollution

KABUL, Afghanistan: Yousuf fled with his family from his home in eastern Afghanistan eight years ago to escape the war, but he couldn’t escape tragedy. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty.
At the camp for displaced people they live in, they and other families keep warm and cook by burning the garbage that surrounds them. One by one over the years, each of the children got chest infections and other maladies from the pollution and never made it to age seven, he told The Associated Press. The 60-year-old has nine surviving children.

Yusouf, who escaped war in eastern Afghanistan to safeguard his family, speaks during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

“We didn’t have enough money for the doctor and medicine ... I can barely feed my children,” said Yousuf, who works as a porter in a vegetable market earning barely a dollar a day. Like many Afghans he uses only one name.
Afghanistan’s pollution may be even deadlier than its war, now 18 years long.
There are no official statistics on how many Afghans die of pollution-related illnesses, but the research group State of Global Air said more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed to it in 2017. In contrast, 3,483 civilians were killed that year in the Afghan war, according to the United Nations.
Kabul, a city of some 6 million, has become one of the most polluted cities in the world — ranking in the top of the list among other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Decades of war have wrecked the city’s infrastructure and caused waves of displaced people.
On most days, a pall of smog and smoke lies over the city. Old vehicles pump toxins into the air, as do electrical generators using poor quality fuel. Coal, garbage, plastic and rubber are burned by poor people at home, as well as at the many brick kilns, public baths and bakeries. Many apartment buildings have no proper sanitation system, and garbage is piled on roadsides and sidewalks.
The large majority of victims are poisoned by the air in their own homes, as families burn whatever they can to keep warm in Kabul’s winters, with frequent sub-zero temperatures and snow. Children and elderly are particularly vulnerable. At least 19,400 of the 2017 deaths were attributable to household pollution, which also contributed to a loss of two years and two months of life expectancy at birth, according to the State of Global Air survey.

Old vehicles are pumping poisonous fumes into the air. (AFP)

Yousuf’s camp, home to more than a hundred families, has no proper water or sanitation system and is surrounded by garbage dumps. His and other families’ children search through the garbage for paper, cloth, sticks or plastic, anything that can be burned for fuel.
“We are so poor, and we have lots of problems, we don’t have enough money for medicine, wood or coal for heating, so this is our life, my children collect garbage from dump yards and we use it for cooking and heating to keep the kids warm,” he added.
Decades of war have worsened the damage to Afghanistan’s environment and have made it a huge challenge to address them. Environmental issues are far down the list of priorities for a government struggling with basic security issues, rampant corruption and a plunging economy.
Three or four decades ago, “it was a wish for people to come to Kabul and breath this air,” said Ezatullah Sediqi, deputy director for the National Environmental Protection Agency. But in the wars since, “we lost all our urban infrastructure for water, electricity, public transportation, green areas, all these things,” he said.
Kabul’s environmental department has launched a new program to control old vehicles, one significant source of pollution.
“Fighting pollution is an important as fighting terrorism,” said Mohammad Kazim Humayoun, the department’s director.
Authorities warn that this winter is expected to be colder than usual and fear that will only increase the use of pollution-creating fuels to keep warm. The Kabul municipality has also called on residents to stop burning garbage for heat and instead use fuel.

The wife of Yousuf who fled from their home in eastern Afghanistan, burns plastic to make tea at a camp for displaced people, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP /Rahmat Gul)

“If everyone follows the instructions laid out by Kabul Municipality, the pollution could be controlled,” the municipality’s spokeswoman, Nargis Mohmand, said. But if not, “then we might live with this untreatable wound for years to come.”
But fuel is either too expensive or not available for many in Kabul. Electrical heaters are too pricey for most, and power outages are frequent.
Doctors at Kabul’s Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital say they’ve seen the numbers of patients with pollution-related illnesses increase, though they could not give exact figures. In the winter, hundreds of children a day sometimes come in, suffering from respiratory illnesses, according to hospital officials.
Dr. Saifullah Abassin, a specialist trainer at the hospital, said his ward has a capacity of 10 patients but often has three times that number.
The government has launched an environmental awareness campaign. Ads on TV, programs at schools and universities and sermons at mosques talk about pollution’s harm to society and tell listeners about steps to reduce it.
But there are steps the state needs to take, like encouraging the planting of trees and creating green spaces, as well as implementing a city master plan to stop unplanned development around the capital, often a source of pollution because of their lack of services.
Sediqi, of the NEPA, said that ever since the first post-Taliban government was created in 2001, there was no planning on urban infrastructure, which left individuals to build on their own.
“Unfortunately, that led to unplanned development,” he said. “So now we have numerous urban problems and challenges and organizational challenges, which is causing the environmental pollution.”