SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's parliament passed a bill on Tuesday proposing fines for companies that cause haze pollution regardless of whether the companies operate on the island.
Last year, Singapore suffered its worst haze on record, as smoke from forest clearing in neighboring Indonesia shrouded the city. Some of the forest clearing was believed to have been done by plantation companies with Singapore connections.
The bill will go to the president who will sign it into law.
Under the bill, companies found guilty of causing haze could be fined up to S$100,000 ($80,347) for each day they pollute, with the maximum aggregate amount being S$2 million. They will also be subject to civil claims from parties who say they have suffered damage caused by haze.
"We have to make companies accountable for the harm they inflict on our health and environment," Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post.
The bill targets entities directly or indirectly involved in slash-and-burn, and grants use of circumstantial evidence to prosecutors, such as satellite images or maps from non-government organizations. Defendants will bear the onus to prove the evidence wrong.
The law is designed to have extra-territorial reach, meaning it could be applied to culprits outside Singapore, though enforcement might be difficult.
Lawmakers hope overseas companies will comply to retain access to Southeast Asia's banking and business hub. A number of palm oil and forestry companies are listed on the Singapore Exchange.
Singapore is neighbor to Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's top two producers of palm oil that has been blamed for contributing to rapid deforestation in both countries.
While applauding the bill as a bold move to solve a decades-long problem, members of parliament, legal professionals and academics raised concern about the difficulty of obtaining accurate data and enforcing the law outside Singapore.
"Yet all said, it is critical that the law be introduced as it is one of many ammunition that is required to fight a very difficult environmental problem," said Kala Anandarajah, a partner at Singapore law firm Rajah & Tann LLP.
Indonesia has for the first time surpassed Brazil in clearing tropical forests, partly to make way for palm oil plantations and other farms, said a group of scientists in June.
The palm oil industry has been targeted by environmentalists for industrial-scale land clearance and land grabs from villagers and an increasing number of palm oil producers, traders and consumers have declared their commitment to sustainable and ethical ways to produce the cheap, versatile and high-yielding oil.
Wilmar International Ltd, the world's largest palm oil processor, and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd, the world's second-largest palm oil planter by acreage after Malaysia's Sime Darby, have both committed to no deforestation.
"We are supportive of efforts to mitigate the haze and will work with the relevant stakeholders," said a Golden Agri spokesman.
Some palm oil companies have expressed their concern to lawmakers that insufficient data on land ownership and concession could lead to erroneous prosecution, and others complained it was unfair to blame the palm oil industry for causing every bout of haze.
"Those who burn the land are actually not palm oil companies, even though the burning is often found on oil palm plantations," said Fadhil Hasan, executive director of Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI).
(1 US dollar = 1.2446 Singapore dollar)
Additional reporting by Yayat Supriatna in JAKARTA; Editing by Robert Birsel