Malaysian planters launch PR drive over SE Asia haze

Malaysian oil palm plantation companies are taking a softly, softly approach on ASEAN’s efforts to get Indonesia to ratify and enforce the new Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

In a press statement, the Association of Plantation Investors of Malaysia in Indonesia (APIMI) has called for composure and not to persue those who were behind the fires, while agreeing that the response to fires should be better. But there’s spin to be found in the statement.

“The annual issue on fire and haze must be tackled delicately by all governments involved and be put as a top priority when the related governments meet during bilateral meetings or ASEAN meetings before the (fire) hot spots season,” said APIMI chairman Abdul Wahab Maskan.

He placed considerable emphasis on the importance of governments maintaining good relations with the companies. “The collaboration between G-to-G (government to government) is very important and this is supported by the B-to-B (business to business) platforms. B-to-B should be no issue as for the Indonesia Malaysia Palm Oil Group, the topic will be deliberated between the two countries’ representatives,” he said.

The statement appears to indicate a closing of ranks among the conglomerates, telling government that any measures would be ineffective without co-operation from the business sector. Maskan, who is also Sime Darby’s chief operating officer, said authorities shouldn’t get distracted by findings on who started this year’s fires but, instead, should look at solutions.

APIMI members, he said, had been responsible operators and observed best practices like other respectable plantation operators in Indonesia, while the Indonesian authorities had generally been responsible and responsive to the needs of plantation investors in Indonesia. In this respect there is some distancing of the Malaysian companies’ position from their Indonesian counterparts.

Maskan pointed out the Roundtable on Sustainable Oil (RSPO) had investigated five member companies implicated in the recent Sumatran forest fires by comparing digital maps of their concession areas satellite images showing the hot spots. The companies included Sime Darby, Kuala Lumpur Kepong, Golden Agri Resources, Tabung Haji Plantations and PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa.

He said that a statement made by RSPO secretary-general Darrel Webber on July 5 proved that none of the APIMI members were involved in the fires and haze in Sumatra’s Riau province. CleanBiz.Asia did, however, check the RSPO web site. The most up-to-date public release on the fires from the RSPO, on July 15, says it is still investigating all the companies accused and is still analyzing digital satellite maps. “The process is going through its course,” it said.

The RSPO says Indonesian firm PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa has been slow in providing information and also quoted a satellite analysis from World Resources Institute as finding hotspots throughout the company’s concessions.

The APIMI chairman, said Malaysian companies “were not generally” at fault in clearing land in Indonesia using fire, which caused smoke that had affected Singapore and parts of Malaysia recently. He said APIMI members have their own operating procedures to ensure that they avoid any open burning activity, and also that there is a special task force to assist authorities should any open burning be caused by others.

Despite this public hand washing by the APIMI, however, the oil palm industry continues to be a magnet for criticism. This is not least because some plantation companies, either directly or through sister companies in the same group, have been heavily involved in the destruction – legally or otherwise – of rain forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. After all, the 10.5 million hectares under oil palm cultivation across the two nations did not simply appear out of thin air.

It will obviously take some time before the causes of this year’s record-breaking haze over Singapore and Malaysia are uncovered. The Singapore Government is clearly adamant that there be a clear accounting and Indonesia appears willing to play along. The APIMI and its fellow travelers are no doubt hoping for a relatively clean bill of health in order to continue the public rehabilitation of their industry.

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