Indonesia braced for forest fires

Deforestation in Riau province, Sumatra, to make way for an oil-palm plantation in 2007. Source: Wikimedia

The dry season across much of Indonesia brings the renewed threat of fires as virgin forest can be cleared for lucrative palm-oil plantations.

While President Joko Widodo is making noises about clamping down on new plantations, this could be seen as a cynical attempt to placate Indonesia’s neighbours, who also choked on filthy air last year. Observers will remain sceptical about Jakarta’s sincerity about controlling the powerful palm-oil industry until the fires stop.

Indonesia says it is moving to ban new palm oil developments to prevent a repeat of last year’s forest fires but manufacturers warn the move could harm the economy.

Renowned documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer of The Act of Killing (2013) and The Look of Silence (2015) says there is too little attention paid to how human rights abuse affects climate change and environmental degradation as a whole.

Fifty years ago, Indonesia went through the little-discussed massacres of between 500,000 and 1 million people accused of having links to the Indonesian Communist Party, as is documented by both Oppenheimer’s award-winning films.

In 1965, Indonesia’s army organised paramilitary death squads who identified rounded up and killed those named as enemies by General Suharto’s new military dictatorship. The killers and their followers are now wealthy establishment figures whose impunity, political influence and capacity for intimidation dominate contemporary Indonesia.

Oppenheimer argues in Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “Over this past year the lawlessness that began with the genocide arrived in all our lives. Some 130,000 forest fires in Indonesia darkened the skies over much of Southeast Asia … destroying more than 8,100 square miles [21,000 square kilometres] of virgin rainforest – an area larger than New Jersey or Wales. The fires released more than 1.75 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equal to the total annual emissions of Japan.

“While last year’s fires were the worst on record, fires on a similar scale have burned annually for nearly 20 years, making a mockery of our efforts to curb global warming.”

Indonesian firms start the fires to clear rainforest and replace it with plantations to produce palm oil, the world’s most common plant-based oil. Fire provides the cheapest way to clear land.

Firms flout the law by working with the military, which has committed regular rights violations and remains above the law, Oppenheimer argues.

International companies work with the military to grab land and exploit a workforce too afraid to demand better treatment. Timber and mining companies are equally happy to take control land and have a similar disregard for the environmental considerations.

Amid the international anger, Widodo is calling for a halt on granting new land for palm oil plantations. “Palm oil concessions available at the moment are already adequate,” Widodo announced. He urged producers to concentrate on using better seeds to increase yields rather than expanding into fresh rainforest.

Plantations in Sumatra and Borneo have expanded to meet global demand, bringing huge profits and tax revenues while the Indonesian Palm Oil Association is warning that palm oil supports 24 million jobs.

“Palm oil is a strategic sector which contributed US$19 billion in exports in 2015,” group spokesman Tofan Madji said. “It contributes to economic growth, especially in remote areas.”

Meanwhile, environmentalists doubt Widodo’s announcement will have much impact. Kiki Taufik, a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner, said a ban would only work with effective cooperation between branches of government in the sprawling island nation.

He said: “This is probably one of the hardest parts – lack of coordination among officials is common and it often leads to bad implementation of regulations.”

Last year’s forest fires also aggravated the El Niño’s weather patterns.

Most Indonesians pay an incalculable price. The fires forced more than 43 million people to choke on foul air and around 500,000 sought care for respiratory conditions. Global Carbon Project director Pep Canadell said the fires were “the global tipping point” that pushed the planet beyond 2 degrees Celsius warming and into the climate “danger zone”.

Oil palm production also involves child labour and poisons the environment with lethal herbicides and pesticides.

Deforestation critically endangers a third of the archipelago’s mammals. Last year’s fires on Borneo killed at least nine Sumatran orangutans with more than 100, trapped by the loss of their habitat or found wandering near villages, had to be relocated. Seven orphans, including five infants, were rescued and taken to rehabilitation centres on Borneo.

“This is the biggest in the world for primate rehabilitation, not just orangutans, but we’re not proud of it,” said Denny Kurniawan, the programme director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which cares for 480 orangutans at seven sites in Central Kalimantan Province on Borneo. “The number of orangutans here is an indicator of the mass forest destruction due to lack of law enforcement and the local government giving out palm oil concessions.”

Palm oil is used in beauty products, snacks and desserts from companies like Starbucks, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Unilever.

One of Indonesia’s top exports, palm oil is used to produce food such as margarine, chocolate and cooking oils, household products like soaps and shampoo and various make-ups and other cosmetics.
More than 50 per cent of products sold in supermarkets contain palm oil and it is processed into biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Little corporate pressure appears to be exerted on Asean’s largest economy.

Jakarta’s institutions, which should hold corporations and the military to account, remain feeble. The courts, civil servants and politicians, which should uphold the rule of law, often profit from damaging industries.

Widodo, who was elected on a reforming platform, has been ineffective at reining in the military and its commercial allies. Impunity remains with Jakarta recently announcing that man-made fires in Indonesia’s rainforests had started again.