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  Business Times 5 Apr 07
Plantation firms help NEA to fight haze in Sumatra
S'pore agency adopts regency in province under Asean pact
By Laurel Teo in Jakarta

AT LEAST five plantation companies in Indonesia have teamed up with Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) to fight the causes of atmospheric haze at a fire-prone spot in central Sumatra.

They include some of the region's largest resources companies such as pulp and paper producer Asia Pacific Resources International (April), Singapore-listed palm oil business Wilmar International, and the Sinar Mas Group, parent company of Asia Pulp and Paper, as well as major palm oil businesses.

Aside from sharing their fire-prevention programmes with the NEA, they will also help train local communities and smaller companies that lack the necessary knowledge or skills.

Representatives from the companies met the NEA last week in Muaro Jambi, a regency in Jambi province roughly nine times the size of Singapore. The Republic has adopted the regency under an Asean agreement, pledging to help it fight the fires which cause the dreaded haze.

So far, the NEA has been working closely with the Indonesian government to devise a masterplan to prevent fires.

And last week, it sent a team of four to Muaro Jambi for more fact-finding. They were joined by Jambi provincial officials, as well as Environment ministry officers from Jakarta.

Joseph Hui, who led the team visit, told BT: 'The main purpose of NEA's trip to Jambi was to visit the plantations and meet the plantation staff, in order to get a better understanding of how fires get started, and what the plantations do to prevent and suppress fires.' Mr Hui is the director-general of the agency's environmental protection division.

He said the NEA decided to approach major plantation companies because many of them were familiar with the local communities and conditions, and were experienced in preventing and fighting fires.

April, for instance, already has a well established system in Riau province, where its plantations are located. Aside from a dedicated team of 60-70 firefighters, it trains at least 350 other employees throughout the plantations to act as back-up for whenever the need arises.

It also distributes brochures to contract workers to raise awareness among the local community, and has set up an integrated farming system to teach villagers more viable and sustainable alternatives to the slash-and-burn techniques of shifting cultivation. Those who graduate from the three-week courses are given seeds, cattle, fish and fertiliser as start-up capital.

Brad Sanders, April's fire safety and aviation manager, told BT that besides a lack of awareness, poverty is another reason why local communities still resort to slash-and-burn farming. Both levels of the problem must be addressed, he said.

Mr Sanders, who joined the NEA on its two-day trip, said April would be happy to share its systems with the NEA. His company is also willing to provide training in fire prevention and management to the villagers and plantation companies in Muaro Jambi.

Mr Hui of the NEA, who agrees that improving the livelihood of local communities would be a key issue in the fight against haze, said that Singapore has already submitted the draft master plan on fire prevention to the Indonesian authorities.

'We are waiting for their comments and input before finalising the draft,' he said. The master plan covers fire prevention and suppression; legislation and enforcement; early warning and monitoring; regional and international collaboration.

For now, it is on track and should hopefully be rolled out in the second half of this year, said Mr Hui.

Related articles on Singapore: haze
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