NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change

NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change
Organised by Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Carlton Hotel, 1 November 2013

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) organized a day-long NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change on 1 November 2013 in Singapore. Around 30 participants, including environmental activists and academicians from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, were in attendance. Participating organisations included Greenpeace, Walhi, Pelangi Indonesia, World Resources Institute, Global Environmental Centre, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, ISIS Malaysia, Surya university Indonesia, and the National University of Singapore. The author represented the University of Malaya.

The roundtable was organized in response to the severe spike in haze pollution experienced by the three countries in June 2013, and on the back of the ASEAN Environmental Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) in September 2013 and the 23rd ASEAN Summit in October 2013. At these meetings, among other things, ASEAN leaders agreed to adopt the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) as a joint haze monitoring system. The HMS would be a platform for Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean governments to share digitized land use maps and concession maps of fire-prone areas that cause transboundary haze.

The roundtable therefore was convened to allow key experts in the field to discuss environment, sustainability, and climate change issues in relation to haze management and what was agreed at the ASEAN meetings. Among the objectives of the roundtable was to review this year’s land and forest fires, to consolidate suggestions for effective monitoring and prevention of these fires, and to deepen linkages among NGOs and academicians in the region for future cooperation.

The discussion was divided into three topic areas, the first a more general sharing of haze-mitigation activities (and challenges faced) carried out by participants through their respective  organizations, the second discussing the potential usefulness of the HMS as a haze management tool, and the third on the role and responsibilities of the ASEAN resource sector in haze mitigation.

For the first topic area, many NGOs shared their experiences on the ground but noted that engaging with governments and companies remained challenging because governments and companies often view NGOs suspiciously. NGOs may be invited for dialogues with governments and companies, but they are often not listened to. Hence, there is a need to build better relationships and trust between these actors.  Furthermore, it was also noted that while many NGOs were cooperating with other NGOs within their country in carrying out haze-mitigation activities on the ground, there was relatively little connectivity across borders. The roundtable agreed that this was not ideal, as many of the current haze-mitigation activities at the governmental level was trans-boundary. NGO engagement should also reflect this arrangement to better complement government action. One good example of NGOs that have been working across borders are Malaysia’s Global Environment Centre and Jikalahari in Indonesia, who have worked together on community awareness and training programmes in Riau.

Academicians also pointed out that with regards to land use management and fire and haze management, policy often comes before science. There remains a lack of scientific and numerical data on things like the economic value of peat, and the impact of peatfire on its immediate communities. Information like this would be vital in allowing governments to better manage land use, and not simply just trying to prevent fires. The actual link between haze and climate change remains vague, with very little academic understanding on the values of CO2 emissions of different types of peat. Academicians were encouraged to carry out primary research on this matter, and make these findings easily accessible to the public and governments to better guide the policy–making process.

The second topic area focused the discussion down to the HMS. It was agreed around the table that the HMS was severely limited by the fact that maps were to be shared between governments only, and were not to be made public. This lack of transparency severely damaged the credibility of this system and other actors not privy to the maps will continue to view the HMS with suspicion. Some participants wondered of governments were reluctant to make the maps public for fear of tampering. Representatives shared experiences in the United States where NASA maps were made public, but were made tamper-proof. Therefore, the issue in the region remains how to make governments feel safe to share their maps with the public?

Other potential problems raised were the quality of the maps that were being shared; if they were adequate for the authorities to reach conclusions on perpetrators of the fires. For example, recent research carried out by the World Resources Institute concluded that often times concession maps do not match official government maps. Participants noted that the One Map Initiative has been in the pipelines for many years now but has not yet borne fruit. One major problem was the decentralization process, where local governments can now apply to change forest classification areas every five years. This meant that forest classifications are changing at a much more rapid rate, often faster than maps can be updated. Hence, it was noted that an important element that needed to be included in the HMS was a ground-check system, where teams on the ground could quickly verify HMS findings on site.

Yet other participants  pointed out that while the HMS would be useful to monitor the fires once they occur, the system was not preventive in nature. Therefore, the HMS cannot be considered the ‘silver bullet’ for haze mitigation in the region. Environmental activists around the table noted that it was important for governments to frame the haze as not merely a fire problem, but more broadly as a deforestation issue. When deforestation occurs, fires, whether accidental or intentional, will become more likely. Academicians noted that this is closely related to the effective development of land use policy and proper implementation of these policies and regulations.

The third and final section of the roundtable meeting was pertaining to the role of the resource sector in haze mitigation. It was noted that the fire and haze was largely a problem of economics. Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers of oil palm in the world, and governments would be very hard pressed to put into place policies that would run contrary to the continued expansion of the sector. This provides a challenge to the development of sustainable deforestation and land use policies. This further amplifies the need for good science; for example, technological advancements to increase yield of oil palm plants would lessen the need to open up new land to achieve production targets.

A point was raised early on in the discussion that other than the oil palm sector, other sectors, like timber and pulp and paper, was also important sectors that were involved in the changing forest landscape. Suggestions included encouraging these sectors to utilize degraded land instead of pristine forests and peatlands. Companies often prefer to use pristine lands for development because degraded lands often have community settlements on them, which often lead to land conflicts. Governments must play a role in striking a balance between the interests of the companies, the environment and the community in such cases.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and other sustainable consumption strategies was discussed, but it was largely concluded that RSPO is lacking in effectiveness as consumer awareness in destination countries of much of the region’s oil palm (China, India and the Middle East) are comparatively low. As a result, RSPO certified palm oil is unable to fetch premium prices, which has been reflected in the waning support of companies for the RSPO. Hence, consumer awareness must come first before strategies like RSPO can have its intended effects in the region. NGOs in attendance were encouraged to work  hard in increasing awareness for sustainable consumption amongst their societies. Singaporean NGOs were especially eager to adopt economic strategies like boycotts as a way to encourage companies to take steps towards ‘greening’ their supply chains.

The roundtable ended with a Chairman’s Statement which was given by Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA. The statement reaffirmed that the haze will only get worse in the future if the status quo remains. It was stressed again that serious attention must be given to underlying causes such as deforestation, forest degradation, and unsustainable land use as well as the linkages between haze and climate change. As a whole, the roundtable proved productive in generating and developing upon ideas to improve upon and increase haze-mitigation activities in the region.


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