Interview with German Media

Najah Onn (Footprint Mechanics), Deborah Germaine Augustin (New Naratif) and I were interviewd by Michael Frantzen from Deutschlandfunk Kultur, the National German Radio Network, on our civil society-level efforts towards a better environment in Malaysia. We talked about our collective engagements via CERAH Anti-Haze Action group and New Naratif, and touched topics ranging from haze, palm oil, and plastic pollution. The full interview ran on radio and also appears in article format here, in an article entitled “Palm Oil and Plastic in Malaysia: Resistance to Garbage and Toxic Smoke” in the German language.

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Another (individual) interview was with Mr Janis Wicke of the German Online Magazine südostasien which translates to Southeast Asia, on the haze-producing fires affecting the region last year. The full interview (in the German language, entitled “Peatsols Are Almost Pure Fuel”, can be found here.

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The draft English transcription (pre-publication) is below:


“Peat Soils Are Almost Pure Fuel” by Janis Wicke

SOA: During summer 2019 we could follow on the media that Indonesia’s forests where burning again on a large scale. Can you describe the developments of this fires in 2019, compared to the years before, particularly 2015.  #00:06:03-7#

HV: Fires in Southeast Asia happen quite regularly. What I am particularly interested in is the transboundary nature of the forest fires. Usually, forest fires, especially in Indonesia, will happen on an almost annually basis, every time during the dry season and this is a mixture of both, natural and also man-made causes. What makes it transboundary is very much reliant on regional weather patterns. For example for this year, we had quite a dry El Nino session and that’s usually what determines whether it becomes transboundary because it’s a combination of extremely dry weather, very low rain and also the winds, they are very strong and it pushes the haze quite far up to the north. So usually the El Nino is a cyclical season, so it happens every 3 to maybe 5 years, it depends if you have a strong or weak El Nino, so what happened in 2015 was a serious El Nino. And this year we have it again. 2016, 17 and 18 there was a weak El Nino, so even when we had the dry season it was not dry enough and the winds where not strong enough to make it transboundary.  #00:07:39-0#

SOA: If you say transboundary, you mean that particularly the haze becoming a transboundary problem, that it’s crossing the borders to the neighboring countries? #00:07:48-0#

HV: Yes, correct. When I refer to a transboundary haze episode, it’s usually when the smoke of the fires, mostly located in Indonesia, would spread to countries that are beyond the Indonesian territory. So usually the immediate effected nations would be Singapore and Malaysia. If it becomes very bad it can reach a bit further. The worst transboundary events that we have seen have reached up to 6 Asian countries, so all they way up to Philippines and Thailand, but for this year, it was not as extreme as that. It was confined mostly to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.  #00:08:39-4#

What are the impacts of this fire on the local population in Kalimantan, Sumatra, but also on life in the neighboring countries? #00:08:52-8#

HV: It is a bit difficult to compare the intensity of Northern Sumatra compared to what we experience in Malaysia. I am a Malaysian, so I try to make some calculations and some observations of how it effects Malaysia, but at the very same time we always have to think about how much worse it is in Kalimantan and Sumatra. For the previous episode in Malaysia, we had up to 300 SPI[1], which is very much a dangerous level already. But in Indonesia close to the epicenter of the fires, the figures will be up to 2000. So you can imagine, we experience 300 as really bad and we are complaining about it, but 2000 on the ground that is much, much worse.

And in terms of the impact, number one it would be on health, that is the most serious impact. The fires, which are biomass burning fires, produce very small, very miniature particles, pm 2.5 or smaller, and this kind of particles are small enough to be breathed in. So we cannot filter it out with our nose hair. This causes very long term health effects, especially for older people and also for very young people. And once you breathe it in, it get’s stuck in your lungs, it goes into your bloodstream and this can cause a lot of heart problems and it can make existing illnesses much worse. There has been recent research that has estimated the additional deaths that have been caused by haze problems in Indonesia up to the number of 100 000. In Indonesia it’s about 90 000 and the rest of SEA a few thousand additional as well. So that is the biggest impact, I would say.  #00:11:51-0#

HV: Of cause the economy is the other thing that is highly impacted. The big issue with the economic impacts is the lost of menhours. If you are sick, you cannot go to work. And therefore, there is a productivity drop. Another major area of loss is in tourism. So during the haze sesion always the countries that are affected, there will be a drop in trourist arrivals. And there are other related things, for example fishig: fisherman cannot go out to sea when there is a very bad haze, because of the visibility. Therefore, we have less fish stocks. region. #00:12:47-5#

SOA: If we put this in the context of climate change there is a lot of discussion going on, on peatlands that are burning. #00:13:07-5#

HV: Yes, peatlands are a very big part of the problem. And it’s very much related to the land use change patterns in Indonesia. Peatlands are a unique and sensitive sort of land that we have in the region. Indonesia actually has the largest percentage of peatlands in the tropics. And Malaysia also has quite a big number of peatlands. Peatlands are usually wet and flooded, and in this flooded state, they are a very good form of carbon sink, because all of the carbon material, for example leaves and branches of the pristine peat forest, when they fall down onto the ground, instead of decomposing, they sink below the water surface. When you decompose you release carbon, so the decomposition process is locked in under the water. In that way in becomes a very important carbon sink. All of this carbon is effectively locked in under the water.

The problem occurs when peatlands are drained, and this it what happens a lot in Indonesia and Malaysia to make the land usable for plantations. You need to have dry land for planting. And this when all the carbon material that has been locked up is suddenly exposed to the air. A great, quick decomposition occurs and this is when all the carbon is released into the atmosphere. This has a very high impact on climate change. A few years back, Indonesia was one of the highest emitter of GHG in the world, it was the third in the world, not because of industrialization or because of fossil fuel use, but because of land use change, because of this peatlands are drained and the drastic release of carbon. And of cause with connection to the fires, when peatlands are drained, they become very fire prone and when they catch fire an even quicker combustion and release of carbon occurs, so this just pumps up all the carbon into the atmosphere.  #00:15:57-5#

SOA: So if peatlands are burning, it means that they have been dried by humans before?  #00:16:37-4#

HV: Yeah, usually that is the case, because peatlands are naturally flooded. When we have fires on peatlands, it’s usually because of some form of human disturbance. Forest fires occur in many places, not just on peatlands. But what I think is very important: the type of fire matters. If the fire occurs in the normal forest, in the mineral soil forests, it is not as bad as fires that occur on peatlands. Because fires that occur on peatlands have a much greater impact on the carbon balance. The second reason is that the fires on peatlands are much harder to put out. Because peatlands, eventually they turn into coal, so they are basically just fuel. The fire on peatlands can go underground, basically the ground is on fire, and you can see just smoke coming out of the ground. It has actually been found that peatlands fires make up only 40 percent of all the forest fires in Indonesia, but it contributes to about 80 to 90 percent of the haze and the carbon release. So if we want to understand and control the fire, peatlands are very important.  #00:17:00-9#

SOA: You have conducted vast research in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia on the circumstances and developments that cause and foster forest fires. From your experience, what are the main causes and drivers of this fires? #00:17:08-9#

HV: Actually in Indonesia exist various laws that protect peatlands from being developed. And even recently the president has passed a moratorium to stop all the release of peatlands for development. So technically the moratorium should ensure that no more peatlands are being developed. However, the problem with this is that peatlands are also a very attractive type of land for plantation companies. There are a few reasons for this. Number one: peatlands are full of very precious timber. Companies like to open up peatlands because they can cut all this timber to sell it for start up capital. Another reason of why it is attractive is because peatlands are usually very far away from villages. So concessioners don’t need to deal with compensation for local communities, don’t have to get into conflict with villages. And – as a third reason – because of the dwindling of other types of land, big plantations are even more interested in peatlands. A lot of this peatlands have been given out to companies without the proper procedures and permissions. So, for example, despite that peatlands are not supposed to be cleared for development, in Indonesia about one quarter of all plantations are on peatlands. So how is that possible to happen if there is a law that prohibits peatlands being developed? I argue in my papers that this is due to a strong culture of patronage. Patrons who are usually in the government are helping and supporting their clients who are usually in the business sector by giving out certain lands which is within their power to do so but may not be within the proper procedures. This is further connected to Indonesia’s system of decentralization, where a lot of the land is controlled by the regional government. Furthermore, the responsibility for collecting taxes for regional government budget is decentralized to the local level as well. So, the local rulers, the Bupatis and such, they are the number one empowered to give out state land and number two, they need to, because this is a very good source of tax income. And of cause, they are also interested to that because they get their own “benefits”. Because they are able to do this, they don’t follow the right procedures that are set by the central government and we have the situation where they basically give out peat lands to their friends and to their family members in business. And this is why we have such a big percentage of plantations, which are owned by very powerful companies existing on peatlands.

And the situation then connects to the practices of this companies on the peatlands. Some scientist still disagree on this, but some claim that you can take care of the peatlands in such a way that you can protect it from being accidently burned. But basically, most people agree, that it is very hard to take care of plantations on peatlands, because drained peatlands are so fire prone. So, the very fact that they are on peatlands makes it very risky. However, for a lot of companies it is a risk that they are willing to take, because plantations are so lucrative anyway. But it becomes even worse, when some plantations use fire to clear their lands in preparation for planting, so for example, after they cut of the trees to sell the wood, they will have all of this tree stumps and all of this branches and all that. The easiest way to clear this off is to burn. And if you burn and you are on peatland, most likely the fire will spread. And this is what usually ends up in the huge fires that you see.

#00:26:12-8#

SOA: What has the Indonesian government done to address the fire problem? Jokowi promised to solve the issue, to combat the forest fires, within a couple of years. How do you assess his politics? What measures did he take and did they have a positive impact on the fire issue?  #00:33:43-4#

HV: Jokowi has been very interested in haze, because it was one of the first issues he had to deal with as soon as he came to office. I think Jokowi has his heart in the right place, however, I think there are a few basic thinks that unfortunately have been lost to politics. One of the big issues with haze and fires in the region is that the haze, if it becomes transboundary, it effects not only Indonesia, but it effects our neighboring countries as well. But Indonesia has so far been quite unresponsive and uncooperative to cooperate with ASEAN to solve the haze problem in a regional manner. When Jokowi came on board, there was a lot of hope because Jokowi was very interested in addressing the fires, but Jokowi continued this trend that he did not really want to engage with ASEAN. A lot of big palm oil and timber cooperations are from Malaysia, they are from Singapore. So there is this ASEAN presence in Indoensia, so it’s not helpful if one shuts out the others, and blames the other, but at the same time there is not a lot of openness and transparency in explaining what is happening and in sharing information. So, for example the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry released a whole list of names of plantations that where involved or where investigate for the fires and some of them where Malaysian firms. And this was used to sort of pointing at Malaysia, this are your people who are causing this. And then, Malaysia wanted to offer assistance, but they did not accept it. Singapore has a transboundary haze law, which enables them or empowers them to trial and prosecute entities outside of Singapore for causing haze in Singapore. But Indonesia has not been very forthcoming with providing them with information or with access to this people. I think the regional perspective is missing right now. The regional willingness to openly engage and openly help each other. If you say that Malaysian companies are involved, allow Malaysia the transparency for us to investigate, to help, to coordinate with your own fire fighters, to actually do something on the ground. #00:37:03-9#

What measures did Jokowi take to fight the causes of the fires?

One of the big things Jokowi announced in 2018 in the beginning of this year when he was running for election was that he managed to stop the transboundary haze issue in 3 years, actually 3 years after he got into office. And that was true in a way, he claimed that there was no transboundary haze. There were fires, but it was not transboundary, and he credit that himself for being able to achieve that through his politics. But however, I don’t think it was due to his politics, it was just because of the weather. Like I said, it was not a big El Nino year. So, despite all the policies he put into, place which some where good, again, this year we have transboundary haze. If his policies would actually be working out, we would not have transboundary haze.

But that being said, on the local level Jokowi has done quite a bit. For example, he has established the Badan Restorasi Gambut, which is the peatland restoration agency. It was supposed to restore peatlands that have been damaged in the past by fire. This was good initiative; however it focuses on the peatland that are abandoned. I think one of the gaps is that it did not clearly say what it was going to do about the peatlands that are already under plantation land, which I think are the most sensitive areas. Jokowi also tried to sort of adress the patron-client relationship problem through the practice of linking fires to the key performance indicators of army and police officials. For example, if their area would have fires they would be in a risk of being remoted as a army chief or head of the police. This was good, however, this did not extend to governorships because the governorships are not under the central government. So this was a bit in the way of what he was trying to do. Other things that he did was, he merged the ministry of forestry an environment with the hope that environmental issues would be taken more seriously by the forestry bureaucracy. But I think what happened was that due to forestry being the stronger ministry, the environmental issues got kind of drowned out. But I think there are other things he tried to do that are quite good. For example, he made the moratorium on new palm oil concessions permanent. So, this is very important, this is very good if it is going to be implemented properly. One of the limitations of a presidential degree is that it’s just a degree until it has actually past the law at the parliamentary level. Just announcing the moratorium does not mean that it will definitely happen. #00:39:08-9#

SOA: Is it a moratorium for development on peatlands or a moratorium on… #00:39:16-7#

HV: On peatlands and also a moratorium for all new palm oil plantations. #00:39:25-2#

SOA: But is it targeting concessions that are already given out? #00:39:27-8#

HV: That’s another problem as well. That’s one of the loopholes. Concessions that have already been given out as far as I know are not included in the moratorium, only new land. But there has been some discussion on land swaps, for whatever land that has been given out that is sensitive, to swap it with another land, but that might cause deforestation as well, more deforestation in other parts. So that might not be a very good solution.

But as a whole, I think, compared to previous leadership, Jokowi is one of the most active in trying to address the problem, but I think it’s just limited by all these local challenges. This is a sesional problem so it comes and goes, so it comes and goes. So when it happens, everybody cares about it, but when it doesn’t it kind of fades into the background. When Jokowi first came into power as president, he was very active on it, but it kind of died out after a while and that is when the El Nino came back and it became a big problem again. So for example the peatland restoration agency, the funding was cut down after a few years, because the fires where not that bad. That cut of the continuity, which is very important in handling this, because prevention is one of the most important things. As soon as the fires already occur it’s too late to try and control it, it’s all about prevention.  #00:41:46-6#

SOA: There is a discussion going on in Europe if the boycott of palm oil can help to stop the expansion of the sector and help to reduce the fires. In this context, the European Union has decided to ban palm oil from the biofuel subsidy program. Do you think it’s a good idea?  #01:06:08-6#

HV: I don’t think it’s a good idea and I have written about that a few times already. I think phasing out palm oil from the biofuel program, is sending the message that palm oil in general is not sustainable. And this is one thing I think is very problematic, with the understanding of palm oil in the world. Not all palm oil is bad. If you don’t use palm oil, you have to use another oil. And another oil is less efficient, it uses more land to produce than palm oil. Furthermore, by blocking out the market this way, it is just reducing the demand for sustainable palm oil. One of the big challenges the RSPO faces, is to market RSPO certified palm oil. Companies who produce sustainable palm oil cannot sell the sustainable palm oil in a premium price, because the market is not there. They are struggling to actually to sell it as sustainable palm oil. A lot of it is just sold as regular palm oil. So, by the EU blockin out the market, a big market which is biofuels, it’s actually damaging and further making it worse for this companies, who have put in the effort to become more sustainable. Instead of rewarding this companies the EU is punishing them, because they are not allowing that oil that is sustainable to be sold in the EU.

SOA: But the argument is that the biofuel is an additional demand, which is escalating the all over demand for palm oil, so it will anyway foster a further expansion of plantations. #01:09:11-4#

HV: That is true, but the point is that biofuels are still used, whether its palm oil or not. So when you block out palm oil from the biofuel market, you have to replace it with another biofuel and any other biofuel is less efficient in terms of land than palm oil. You will trigger deforestation on an even bigger scale, with soy or rapeseed or what ever you gonna use to replace palm oil. And when there is a big demand for sustainable palm oil as biofuel feedstock, you can encourage the industry to become sustainable so they can tap into that market. #01:10:37-9#

SOA: What is your understanding of sustainable palm oil? Palm oil plantation – also certified ones – are known for high usage of agrochemicals and fertilizers which can lead to acidification of the soil on the long run.  #00:54:39-6#

HV: If you use a lot of chemicals and fertilizers, of cause it’s not very sustainable. There are still practices in the industry that are unsustainable and one of them, I believe, is the practice of using peatlands. But if you stick to the sustainable way of planting palm oil and pulp and paper I believe it’s not as big as a problem, if you maintain the usage, reduce chemicals, use good stock. So instead of supplement with chemicals you have good trees that can produce good seeds. You do not expend, but you intensify. You focus on what you already have, to produce more fruit, higher quality fruit, rather than just opening up more and more land all the time. So palm oil can be produced sustainably and part of my work is to focus on and to highlight certain practices which I believe are unsustainable and to discuss the politics of it, the economics of it and the challenges to change this practices in order to create a more sustainable industry. Because obviously, for us, in this part of the world, palm oil is very important, it is one of the biggest drivers of the economy and of development. The problem is that the unsustainable part is very damaging, but palm oil plantations can be done sustainably.  #00:58:07-9#

SOA: So when we talk of intensification, can this also have an unsustainable trend if you try to intensify and raising yield though more fertilizers and chemicals. How can you intensify the plantations in a sustainable way? #00:58:27-3#

HV: Of cause if you use more and more fertilizers, especially if it’s chemical fertilizers and not natural fertilizers, this can be unsustainable. In Malaysia we have a government body that specializes in doing research on palm oil and how to intensify palm oil more sustainably. For example, instead of using chemical fertilizers, they will plant small plants in between, small creeper plants, that would bring certain nutrients into the soil. That will remove the need for chemical fertilizers. Another example is the development of a breed of palm oil, they call it dwarfe palm oil, which does not grow as tall. Palm oil actually can produce fruit for very long, but once they reach a certain age and a certain high it becomes very difficult to cut down the fruit. So they have to cut down the whole tree and plant a new tree. But then if you have dwarf oil palms, you can let them produce for 40, 50, 60 years, you don’t have to cut the down because they are short enough so that you can still harvest them.

SOA: There is a lot of distrust into the RSPO in Europe, because there have been so many cases of companies that have been violating the standards and who have not been suspended and who have not been persecuted inside the system. So that there is a distrust, that the RSPO is not really enforcing the standards which are made on global scale, that it’s not working out on the local level.  #01:14:21-0#

HV: I understand why there is some distrust, but you know, it’s not perfect, the certification system, but I think it is good enough to be sort of a baseline and a start. And RSPO is continuously updating there terms and conditions and their P&C, so it’s a process. So hopefully it will improve and hopefully it will be more acceptable to more countries in the future.  #01:16:16-3#

SOA: Do you think there is space for an organic certification standard, which has more strict rules, for a smaller niche market? Is there something like that in SEA so far? Because in Germany, you can buy organic products in the organic markets which contain organic palm oil, but as far as I know it’s coming from South America. #01:16:32-0#

HV: I have heard a bit about that, about the arguments that are saying we should just make it like organic chocolate or organic coffee. I think its very niche and I don’t think it’s sustainable on large scale and I think some people are more willing to buy or pay more, but it is on a very small scale and on a very premium basis. That means if you just focus on organic you are not making sure that the whole sector is improving. It will be just a very small part of the sector. I think because palm oil is so large and the impact is so broad and because it is so much in demand, you need a overarching system to adress it, not just sort of niches. #01:17:48-7#

[1] Standard pollution Index. The index is measuring the concentration of pollutant particles in the air. Values above 100 are regarded as unhealthy and above 300 extremely hazardous.

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