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By Chermaine Yap

The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), António Guterres, has proclaimed an end to global warming and the beginning of “global boiling”. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) assigned a red rating to the 2023 haze outlook marking the highest risk level for haze, underscoring the gravity of the situation.

In the era of “global boiling,” how is the palm oil industry equipped to manage fire risks?

Positive Shifts in Palm Oil Industry

The palm oil industry has historically been closely linked to slash-and-burn deforestation and the transboundary haze for years.

The intense scrutiny of the industry has since resulted in more robust regulations and voluntary corporate no-deforestation commitments, also known as No Deforestation and No Peat pledges since 2014.

Indonesia and Malaysia shine as deforestation success stories. A recent Global Forest Watch (GFW) data shows Indonesia and Malaysia, major palm oil producers, achieving substantial drops in primary forest loss. Indonesia’s deforestation decreased by 64% in 2015-2017 and 2020-2022, leading all tropical nations.

Fig 1. Global Forest Watch’s Primary Forest Loss Graph

Despite recent haze-free years, the palm oil industry, including companies like Musim Mas, maintains its vigilance against fires and takes steps to prevent and manage fire risks.

1. From fire management to fire prevention

We track our supply chain to detect deforestation, peat development, and fires. Employing advanced technologies, Musim Mas utilizes early-warning systems to mitigate fire risks throughout our operations and supply base. This encompasses remote sensing through closed-circuit television (CCTV) and satellite monitoring platforms. In 2019, the palm oil sector collaborated on a radar monitoring innovation called Radar Alerts for Detecting Deforestation (RADD), enabling near-real-time identification of deforestation.

Fig. 2 CCTV located within our plantations to monitor our concessions.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) identify fire-prone spots, ensuring daily hotspot checks across our concessions and supply base. While technology aids hotspot monitoring, it’s crucial to recognize that hotspots provide only a partial picture. Ground checks and drone surveys ensure accurate assessments, especially in remote areas.

Fig. 3 Our Sustainability and Traceability teams conduct daily hotspot monitoring of our concessions.

Palm oil plantations deploy strategic firebreaks and reservoirs to curtail fire spread and reduce its impact. Our skilled firefighters have since extended aid beyond our concessions.

We also educate local communities, empowering them with fire prevention knowledge and training through initiatives like the Fire-Free Village Program (FFVP) and ensuring their preparedness. The palm oil sector engages communities through these efforts, fostering behavioral change and active involvement in fire prevention.

Fig. 4 Fire breaks within our concessions to slow down the spread of fres, should it occur.

2. From working with our suppliers who sell directly to us to working with smallholders who sell indirectly to us

Around 41% of Indonesia’s current palm oil production area is attributed to independent smallholders, and it is projected to reach 60% by 2030. Engaging with these smallholders is crucial for promoting sustainable palm oil practices, given their potential for enhanced productivity and sustainability. Despite their importance, these smallholders face obstacles such as limited guidance, market access, and financial resources, leading to practices like slash-and-burn deforestation for increased yields.

We went beyond our supply base to work directly with indirect independent smallholders who may or may not sell to us.

Since 2015, we started training initiatives for smallholders, such as replanting, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and financial literacy. Musim Mas’ Independent Smallholders’ program integrates them into sustainable supply chains, aided by collaboration with the Indonesian Oil Palm Estate Fund Agency for replanting.

3. From single company approach to working with others

From the outset, we’ve recognized the imperative of collective efforts. Fire risk mitigation hinges on collaboration—no single entity can tackle this challenge alone. The palm oil industry works with the Indonesian government, non-governmental organizations, and supply chain partners to share best practices, exchange knowledge, and coordinate fire prevention strategies. Roundtable discussions and partnerships foster dialogue and cooperation among industry players, ensuring a coordinated approach to addressing fire-related challenges.

The Fire-Free Alliance exemplifies this collaboration—a multi-stakeholder coalition including palm oil and forestry firms working to address haze and forest fire concerns.

Capitalizing on the lessons learned, the palm oil industry is well-positioned to redefine its narrative. The immense challenge to ensuring that most of our industry is now covered by an NDPE commitment, responsible practices, innovation landscape solutions, and stringent government regulations reflects our comprehensive approach to fire mitigation in this era of “global boiling”.