Singaporean Minister: Economic interests causing ‘environmental vandalism’

Vivian Blakrishnan delivered a blunt assessment of deforestation in Southeast Asia.
Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan delivers his speech during the Forests Asia Summit at the Shangri-La Hotel, Jakarta, Indonesia. CIFOR photo

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Editor’s Note: Minister Balakrishnan’s speech can be watched in its entirety, above. His address begins at the 20:14 mark. Check in at forestasia.org to see news updates from the Forests Asia Summit. Videos of all presentations and speeches at the Summit will be posted here.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Short-term economic interests in Southeast Asia are driving “environmental vandalism,” Singapore’s top environmental official said Monday.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the Singaporean Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, spoke in direct terms about the causes and effects of deforestation in the region, urging greater transparency, stronger law enforcement and stricter penalties for activities related to deforestation.

“We have a problem,” he said. “The root of this problem is misaligned commercial interests.”

Balakrishnan spoke to nearly 2,000 attendees at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta, minutes after the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, delivered the keynote address. Relations between Singapore and Indonesia were strained last June when haze from peat fires in Sumatra drifted into Singapore, causing its worst air pollution on record.

But he also acknowledged the wider effects of continued deforestation on the climate.

“Even as we clear forests because we need more land for agriculture, ultimately this is self-defeating, because climate change progresses and sea levels rise,” he said. “Nature will take revenge on us.

 “If we contuinue on this trajectory, all of us are in trouble.”

A transcript of Minister Balakrishnan’s speech follows

We have a problem with transboundary haze – and I want to make three points.

The first point is that the root of this problem is misaligned commercial interests. The reason companies burn forests and engage in unsustainable degradation of land is because of short-term profits.

The second point is that the main victims of this, in fact, are the local indigenous people living on and adjacent to those lands that are subject to such environmental vandalism.

The third point is that there is therefore an urgent need for governments, for non-governmental organisations, and for local communities, to insist on transparency, to collaborate more effectively, to pursue investigations and to prosecute those responsible.

There are three key reasons why this problem matters. First, the loss of biodiversity. Second, the huge emission of greenhouse gases, and third, the negative and real impact that these practices have on the global community.

The forests of South East Asia make up about 5% of the world’s total. But many people do not sufficiently appreciate the fact that there is greater biodiversity in the forests of South East Asia than there is even in the Amazon or in the African rainforest. And it is certain that there is greater biodiversity even in a tiny spot like Singapore than in the entire continental United States. So the point is that is if we mismanage the rainforest in our neighbourhood, this is a loss not just for us, but indeed for the entire world.

But we know, unfortunately, that South East Asia is losing rainforest at an unprecedented rate. A 2013 publication in the Science Journal revealed that the amount of forest lost globally from 2000 to 2012 is approximately 2.3 million square kilometres[1]. To put this into context, this is about 3100 times the size of Jakarta, or indeed 1.2 times that of the entire Indonesia.

The forests in Southeast Asia are not spared from this worrying development and it is basically driven by economic interest. Logging and pulpwood clear-cutting have also led to extensive deforestation.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has been around for thousands of years but we did not have haze on this unprecedented level before

Vivian Balakrishnan

It is not just the loss of biodiversity; it also impacts global climate change. Deforestation contributes, at an alarming rate, to the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, a 2010 REDD report suggests that the majority of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions actually stems from land use activities; with 37%  due to deforestation and 27% due to peat fires. Deforestation occurring on peatlands, especially those that have been cleared by burning, releases a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide.

I saw a recent study conducted by CIFOR that estimated that in June last year, when we experienced the worst episode of transboundary haze so far in South East Asia, about 171 megatonnes of the carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gases was released into the atmosphere. To put that 171 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into context, that represents about 10% of Indonesia’s reported annual greenhouse gas emissions for the period from 2000 to 2005.

It is ironic that we spend, and I know that all of us climate change negotiators have very big carbon footprints because we jet all over the world to release more hot air into the negotiations. I find it ironic that we argue about shaving a few percentage points in international commitments, but yet right here in our neighbourhood, we are releasing such copious amount of carbon dioxide.

We need to be frank about it and to accept that we do have a problem and that in fact, the whole issue of the sustainable development of forests is a complex issue, because in addition to being a source of biodiversity and of providing pulp and logging, we have to contend with the competing issue of land development for agriculture.

It is also supremely ironic that even as we clear our forests because we need more land for agriculture, this is ultimately self-defeating because as climate change progresses, sea levels rises, we will get more droughts and more floods. Nature will take revenge on us and the effect on agriculture will be put us all at risk. So if we continue on this current trajectory, all of us are in trouble.

I started off my speech by asking you to just remember three points – the root cause of emissions are commercial; that the main victims are local; and that the solutions require collaboration as well as effective and decisive action on the part of governments, NGOs and local communities. Let me just expand a little on this.

Last year, Southeast Asia experienced one of the worse episodes of haze ever. And the negative impact that had on the economy, on livelihoods, on the environment, and most importantly, on the health of people was unprecedented. This happened in June, and we would have thought we learnt our lesson, but the brutal truth is that in fact, in January and February this year, the fire burning season began even earlier, taking advantage of a drought which occurred in our region.

The haze affected Singapore, but it is important to remember that there are far more citizens in Indonesia and Malaysia that were affected, far worse than that experienced by my fellow citizens in Singapore. Businesses also suffered losses and workers who work at worksites and even wafer fabs were affected because the air in the plants was contaminated. Airports were closed and we all know that in fact, the external cost of haze far exceeded the short term profits that the companies would have gained. And for too many years, our region has grappled with this recurrence without making much progress.

We cannot and should not blame traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. Slash-and-burn agriculture has been around for thousands of years but we did not have haze on this unprecedented level before. The reason we have it, is because of industrial-scale deforestation at an unprecedented level. And this happens because the short-term gains are too compelling. Because the companies are not liable for paying for the damage that they cause to the external environment, the larger economy and the people who are most affected by the hardships.

So the question which confronts us, is can we re-align their interests? Because, you see, it is important for us to realise that to call a halt to development is not possible – it is not practical. Every nation, every group of people has a right to development, a right to grow and a right to feed to feed his or her family. So the question is, how do we grow our economies, how do companies make profits but in a sustainable and fair way?

I will leave you with three final thoughts.

The first is that people have rights. They have rights to jobs, to growth, to health, to security and to long-term safety.

The second point is that companies have responsibilities. Companies have to make a profit. Without a profit, you do not exist, but you have got to make your profits in a way which accounts for the impact that you have on the local communities and on the environment. And the really viable, sustainable, long-term companies are those who can account for this publicly.

The third point is transparency and that is where NGOs can be more responsible players. We now live in a day and age where satellite photos are made available almost real-time, of drones being able to ground-truth and of air quality sensors in the always-on, always-connected world of the internet. We have got to turn those eyes and build a system of transparency which makes people accountable for their actions and companies who operate in such a transparent world.

I will give you an example. Unilever has committed that it will track the source of its palm oil, all the way down to the plantations, which therefore sends a message that it wants its sources to be derived from sustainable practices.

We need to start, to wake up and to operate in such a transparent way. And if we do that, I believe that it is possible to develop, make a profit, be responsible and to look out for people. Only and only if you do that, then can we fulfil that role that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono set out just now, which is that we are not only making decisions just for the present, but to leave a viable legacy for generations to come.

I thank you all very much for the honour of being able to address you and to speak so frankly. To all of you, I look forward to all the deliberations and most importantly, your actions that will leave a better world for the next generation.

Thank you very much.

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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Deforestation Peatlands Wetlands Fire & haze Indonesian Wetlands