For a Common Good
Singapore-based non-profit group PM.Haze has a multinational staff and volunteer base who work in collaboration to encourage businesses to use environmentally friendly products, with the aim of fighting the annual haze problem.
BY A.J. LEOW
t’s 10am on a Saturday. While most of her peers are catching up on sleep after a week’s activities, 15-year-old Gauri Shukla is making an animated presentation to a group of older students from other schools in Singapore.
The United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) student, who is an American, is sharing her experiences of persuading food establishments to use environmentally friendly cooking oil. For one company, she has tried phone calls, email, social media, and even a visit to the company’s headquarters. “We got only as far as the receptionist at the counter,” she says, before asking the audience for feedback and suggestions on how to further her cause.
The budding activist is one of 40 volunteers with People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze), a non-profit working to mitigate the effects of the haze that envelopes large swathes of South-east Asia every year. About half the volunteers are Singaporeans; the rest are foreign students and foreign talents. The group is currently led by three full-time staff who hail from Singapore, China, and France.
“Besides raising public awareness and encouraging grassroots participation via youth groups, we also work closely with local and regional non-governmental agencies (NGOs) like Global Environment Centre (Malaysia) and WALHI (Indonesia), and link government bodies with businesses. This sustains the dialogue as most people have short-term memory when it comes to the haze – out of sight, out of mind,” says Singaporean co-founder Tan Yi Han.
“ I decided to see the fires for myself. I went on a personal fact-finding trip to Malaysia... I saw how local farmers were victims of both the haze and the fires that ruined their harvests. Yet, they showed us so much hospitality. I realised how little we know about their plight. ”
Tan Yi Han, co-founder of PM.Haze
In 2013, the haze was at its worst in Singapore, hitting record Pollutant Standard Index readings of 400. “There was a lot of finger-pointing in the media about whether it was the farmers’ slash-and-burn methods, or companies based in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, that were to blame,” Tan says. “I decided to see the fires for myself. I went on a personal fact-finding trip to Malaysia, learnt about peatlands, and saw how fires can linger in dried peat for days or even weeks. I saw land that was chow tar (‘charred’ in Hokkien) as far as the horizon, and how local farmers were victims of both the haze and the fires that ruined their harvests. Yet, they showed us so much hospitality. I realised how little we know about their plight. After I came back, I got a few friends together in February 2014 to brainstorm what ordinary people in Singapore can do. That’s how PM.Haze was born.”
That year was also when Singapore opened its Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill for public consultation. PM.Haze cobbled together a focus group to gather feedback, and came up with a list of suggestions that helped to strengthen the Bill.
The group has since achieved several milestones, including collaboration with outreach partners like the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Together, they ran Singapore’s first public exhibition on the haze in 2014.
PM.Haze has also worked with WWF Singapore and the National Environment Agency on various campaigns to raise public awareness. The organisation has also organised crowdfunded volunteer trips (People’s Expedition to Experience Peat, or PEEP) to the Raja Musa Forest Reserve in Selangor, Malaysia, and Sungai Tohor in the Riau province in Indonesia, to assist in re-wetting peat swamps to help lower the risks of fire.
“PEEP is a solution that ordinary people can participate in, by building dams to maintain a higher level of underground moisture in peatlands. Dry peat is the biggest source of carbon emissions, even if there are no fires, due to soil decomposition,” notes PM.Haze’s executive director, Zhang Wen, who hails from China.
When burned, peat produces 10 times more smoke than other types of vegetation. Zhang says PM.Haze and its NGO partners are exploring ways to help the local Malaysian and Indonesian communities switch to crops that can grow on wet peat – such as sago, which can be used to make noodles and snacks – for a diversified and sustainable livelihood that does not harm the environment.
PM.Haze has also joined Fire Free Alliance, a voluntary multi-stakeholder group comprising palm oil and paper producers, and agri-businesses. It aims to prevent fires.
“South-east Asia’s main source of carbon emissions is not fossil fuels, but deforestation linked to expansion of plantations owned by palm oil and paper companies. We seek to encourage them to improve and be more transparent in their business practices, and minimise environmental impact,” says Zhang.
From now through 2019, she says, PM.Haze will be building its active volunteer base through leadership programmes and workshops, to empower grassroots activism. It will also be networking with regional NGOs and stepping up efforts to persuade companies to switch to more sustainable practices, like using biodegradable materials, reducing waste, and recycling; this includes persuading banks to offer financially responsible lending policies to help make business financing more affordable.
The organisation also hopes to make headway in encouraging consumers, through volunteer activists like Shukla, to exert public influence on businesses to switch to palm oil products that are certified to be sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Notes Zhang: “The public needs to understand that palm oil is found in more than 50 per cent of products on supermarket shelves, but that very few can be considered sustainable. For example, there are currently only two cooking oil brands available – Cabbage and Chief – that are RSPOcertified, though it costs less than one cent more to make a dish with RSPO cooking oil (or six cents more per litre).
“Palm oil is a very productive crop, so a boycott would be counter-productive; switching to other vegetable oils will lead only to more deforestation as new farmlands will be needed. It’s better for consumers to encourage restaurants and supermarkets to switch to using or stocking RSPO products.”
Shukla has already convinced stallholders at UWCSEA to use sustainable cooking oil, after getting her schoolmates to sign a pledge not to purchase from stalls that don’t. A small victory, perhaps, but a step forward nevertheless in the battle against the haze.
For more information on ways to help stop the haze, or on becoming a PM.Haze volunteer, visit www.pmhaze.org.
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