Asia Pulp & Paper says comprehensive solution involving all stakeholders needed to solve crisis

This article is more than 12 months old

Last month, the National Environment Agency served Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) a notice, seeking information on its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia, as well as measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to put out fires in their concessions. This month, FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket pulled APP products off their shelves. On Thursday, a day after meeting the NEA, senior APP executives met journalists from Singapore Press Holdings to give their side of the story.

By Kenneth Lim

Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and its parent company, Sinar Mas, are on a mission to tell anyone who will listen that they did not start the fires behind the regional haze, and that a comprehensive solution involving all stakeholders is needed to solve the crisis.

The largest pulp and paper company in the region, APP has found itself trying to put out fires for the past few months, both in a literal sense and in the sense of dealing with regulatory and public anger.

At least the metaphorical fires can be fought in the comfort of meeting rooms.

Sinar Mas agribusiness and food chairman and chief executive Franky Widjaja, APP managing director Linda Wijaya and APP sustainability and stakeholder engagement managing director Aida Greenbury met newspaper journalists from Singapore Press Holdings, including The Business Times, on Thursday.

The meeting, which was initiated by the companies, came a day after they met officials from Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA).

"We understand this frustration," Mr Widjaja said. "What we've been discussing with our Indonesian government is not just firefight, what we have today, but how can we really make sure in future there is no occurrence.

"But we also informed them that we need to be very clear in terms of really addressing the issue rather than politicising it."

Mr Widjaja reiterated APP's stance that the company and its suppliers did not start the fires in South Sumatra that have been identified as the chief source of the current haze.

More than 80 per cent of the fires started from outside of concessions held by APP or its suppliers and spread to their property via wind and transmission in peatland.

Fires that started within their concessions can be attributed to existing occupants who are not part of the company or its suppliers, and to illegal logging, Ms Greenbury said.

There is some basis for APP's assertions that some fires were started outside of its concessions. Until recently, Indonesian law allowed small farmers to burn up to two hectares of land, a rule that the Indonesian disaster management agency has said was a source of abuse.

Beyond having little control over the source of the fires, APP's ability to control the fires has also been stretched by El Nino weather patterns that have created unusually hot and dry weather conditions this year, Mr Widjaja said.

The company's immediate priority is to control the fires, he said. The hot and dry weather is spreading north towards Riau, which would make the haze even worse for Singapore, Malaysia and the local Indonesian islands if the fires cannot be controlled by then.

Plantation owners in the region and the government have come up with a plan to jointly fight the fires and there are plans to bring in larger equipment, such as heavier-payload helicopters, Mr Widjaja said.

Over the longer term, Mr Widjaja hopes that cooperatives such as those used by oil palm companies can be used for other agricultural crops, which would give small farmers an alternative to slash and burn.

Business owners are now working on plans to "bring these people to the cooperatives, to become real, good farmers".

Explaining the complexities of the fires to the public has taken on more urgency in the wake of actions taken by regulators and watchdogs.

NEA said that APP had provided more details sought by the agency about information related to APP's subsidiaries and its suppliers at their Wednesday meeting.

NEA has also sought further information, which APP has said it will provide.

The Singapore Environment Council's (SEC) withholding of the Green Label certification for APP products has led retailers in Singapore to pull APP products from their shelves.

Asked about the status of APP's Green Labels, a spokesman for the SEC said that the group is still "sorting out the declaration forms" submitted by APP. The spokesman said that there was no indicative timeline on when the SEC might make a decision on whether to restore the Green Label for APP's products.

- This article, from yesterday's Business Times, has been edited for length

We understand this frustration. What we've been discussing with our Indonesian government is not just firefight, what we have today, but how can we really make sure in future there is no occurrence.

- Sinar Mas agribusiness and food chairman and chief executive Franky Widjaja


Indonesia launches biggest fire operation ever

On Friday, Indonesia launched its biggest operation ever to combat fires blanketing Southeast Asia in haze, an official said, with dozens of planes and thousands of troops.

32 planes and helicopters - including six aircraft from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia - were dispatched to support the over 22,000 personnel on the ground who have been fighting the fires for weeks.

Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the air teams would conduct water-bombing and weather modification efforts across six of the worst-hit provinces in Sumatra and Indonesian portion of Borneo island.

Scientists have warned that this year's blazes are on track to be the worst ever as an El Nino weather system has created tinder-dry conditions in Indonesia.

This month, Jakarta accepted international help after weeks of failed attempts to douse the blazes infuriated its neighbours. - AFP