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Friday
Jun282013

Hazardous Singapore haze result palm oil plantation fires

Singapore has been hit with vast quantities of smog, which has now become hazardous, due to the massive forest fires in Indonesia. Highlighting a source of atmospheric pollution, Indonesia has been burning off large sections of forest in order for the land to be used for agricultural purposes. The plumes of smoke created by burning of this scale have travelled from Indonesia to hang over Singapore for days, leading to a smog crises and the worst haze levels in years.

Image courtesy of Vincent

It has been suggested that there are still over 800 fires burning, but it is unknown at present what the causes of the many fires were. The fires are mostly burning on timber and oil palm plantations, and in the past several companies have used fires to clear the land, although this method is illegal in Indonesia. Greenpeace have used US satellite data with other government concession maps and concluded that the fires have mostly been found in palm oil plantations. Indonesian ministers on 22nd June blamed eight Singapore based pulp and paper companies but didn’t name them, with two companies, Sinar Mas and Asia Pacific Resources International, then being named in connection with the fires. The companies responded to this claim but said that the fires that were started on their land had been outside their zones. While the companies claim that they have a zero burn policy, organisations such as Greenpeace have been quick to point out that this does not make them blameless – as these types of companies that drain and clear the peatlands have created the conditions for fires to start and cause such destruction in the way that they farm. Since the majority of the fires have been on plantation lands, the companies are partly responsible.

'View from the Marina Bay Financial Centre this morning at 10.00am Singapore time, 21st June, 23rd floor.'
Image courtesy of @Brendon_F via Twitter

This year’s fires are particularly bad because of the dry conditions, creating tinder that can spread and start fires easily. A similar problem was faced in 1997 when Bornean fires raged for several months and caused shipping and aviation accidents, also leaving thousands with respiratory and heart problems. Indonesia is now tasked with controlling the destruction that the current fires are causing, and is deploying planes and helicopters to help put out the flames. As the flames have been burning for several days, the smoke that is coming from the peat fires has become think and acrid and settled heavily over Singapore, also moving into Malaysia more recently and causing the pollution index in Kuala Lumpur to rise to “very unhealthy” and “hazardous”.

'A view that can kill. PSI 400.' 21st June. Image courtesy of @badboytiar via Twitter.

Indonesia is the world’s top producer of palm oil, which is used in a wide range of everyday items and is farmed in large quantities to the detrimental effect of the land and animals in the surrounding area. The area of Indonesia covered by palm oil plantations is 11.9 million hectares, with plans for it to increase to 29 million hectares – an area that would be larger than Belgium or the Netherlands. The land that is left as ‘available’ to be made into palm oil plantations is forest land and has become something of a target for the palm oil companies. As the demand for palm oil continues to increase for use as biofuel and as such the amount of land that is needed is in turn increasing. When areas of forest are eventually acquired to be used as palm oil plantations by large companies or smaller farmers who hope to independently become palm oil suppliers, the way that they are often cleared is by burning. But as demonstrated, this burning can sometimes become out of control and can cause huge levels of pollution and destruction for the immediate surrounding area and areas that are much further away.

 “This is the fastest, most comprehensive transformation of an entire landscape that has ever taken place anywhere in the world,” says Yuyun Inadrai of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, and it is having disastrous consequences for global pollution levels, as well as taking the forests and land that the industry is destroying to a state that it will never bounce back from.

By Ellie Cambridge

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