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S'pore, Indonesia experts say 'yes' to law on transboundary haze

Publication Date : 21-02-2014

 

Environmental groups and legal experts in Singapore and Indonesia yesterday welcomed the proposed new law on transboundary haze for the strong signal it sent to errant businesses.

The proposed Transboundary Pollution Bill, put up by the Singapore's Ministry of Environment and Water Resources on government feedback website Reach on Wednesday, targets firms with haze-producing fires on their land which affect Singapore.

They can be fined up to S$300,000 (US$237,341), or up to S$450,000 (US$356,012) if they actively ignore requests to prevent or control haze. Public consultation on the Bill is open till March 19.

The new legislation is a direct response to Singapore's worst-ever bout of haze last June, which was caused by fires set to clear land in Sumatra.

This year, fires are also raging in Riau as land continues to be cleared by burning. The number of hot spots there dropped from 256 on Wednesday morning to slightly more than 100 yesterday.

"If coupled with strong ground mapping of concession areas and enforcement to pinpoint responsibility for the fires, the Bill can be effective and sends a strong message to businesses that they will be held accountable for their impact," said World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore chief executive Elaine Tan.

Bustar Maitar, Indonesia forest campaign head at the international non-governmental group Greenpeace, agreed that the Bill would send "a very strong signal to both producing country governments and the palm oil sector". But "this must be matched by equally strong measures from the Indonesian government", he added.

Environmental law professor Laode M. Syarif at Hasanuddin University in South Sulawesi added the new law will address criticisms that Singapore is lenient towards companies that are headquartered in the city-state but operate in Indonesia and could potentially be guilty of illegal burning. "It sends a warning to Singapore-based companies operating outside the country. It could also stop Indonesians from using the excuse that Singapore-linked companies get away with environmental destruction here."

How the proposed law will be enforced may present an issue. Associate Professor Burton Ong, of the National University of Singapore law school and deputy director at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, said proving that a firm caused fires could be "quite difficult and onerous".

Firms might claim they had no control over sub-contractors who start the fires, he said, while the authorities have to decide how much resources they want to devote to investigating and prosecuting offenders.

But Nanyang Technological University professor Ang Peng Hwa, who created the Haze Elimination Action Team Facebook campaign in 2007, said prosecution might not be too hard if Singapore gets help from Indonesia and NGOs. "The Indonesians are also angry about the fires. NGOs like Greenpeace could provide evidence," he said.

If passed, the Bill will also put pressure on Indonesia to step up its own efforts to resolve the haze problem, though implementation may be a major stumbling block due to lack of skilled ground staff to assess remote areas.

"It is a bold move we applaud, but we are concerned that culprits can exploit any loophole to demand if the haze is indeed caused by them," said Mr Zenzi Suhardi, forest campaigner for Indonesia Forum for the Environment based in Sumatra.

He suggested the tough fines be bolstered with demotion in status of the companies.

Ang meanwhile felt the fines were too low to hurt multimillion-dollar businesses.

NUS Business School professor Ivan Png, whose Straits Times opinion piece last year called for just such a law, suggested penalties proportional to the land area a defendant owns. He also suggested that the law include an incentive for whistleblowers to provide evidence.

 

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