It is customary to blame the developed world for creating climate change after centuries of putting profits before environmental concerns.
The argument goes that western capitalists have amassed wealth through industrialisation, leaving low-lying communities to pay the cost through flash floods and rising sea levels as the polar ice melts.
However, Indonesia is both the victim and perpetrator of the climate crisis.
Millions of Indonesians live in hillside communities, which are highly vulnerable to flash floods, or along its coastline. A large proportion of Indonesia’s population faces the prospect of losing homes to flooding.
But the displaced can blame the Jakarta government, as well as the western world.
With one of the world’s longest coastlines and its fourth-highest population, Indonesia is the second-largest marine plastic polluter after China.
Indonesia has long earned a large chunk of its income from the export of crude oil. And every year it fails to prevent large plantations simply burning tonnes of unwanted vegetation to clear the way for more palm oil cultivation.
Deforestation is unchecked by the authorities.
According to the WWF, every hour an area of rainforest the size of 300 football fields is cleared for palm oil to be grown on.
The Indonesian government in 2018 earned US$17.8 billion from exports of palm oil.
Indonesia is also the world’s largest producer of biofuels.
And a third of all Indonesian mammal species are now estimated to be critically endangered as a result of deforestation, largely for palm oil.
Rainforest and peatland are cut and burned to create plantations. Peat is extremely rich in carbon so when it is burned, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Indonesia produces the third-highest greenhouse-gas emissions after China and the US.
More intense storms and rising sea levels are making large areas of Indonesia unsafe for habitation.
In South Sumatra Province, two uninhabited islands, Betet and Gundul, have been flooded by rising sea levels.
Betet is a part of Berbak-Sembilang National Park.
The park was declared a world biosphere reserve in 2018 by the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco. It has mangrove forests, which absorb a disproportionate amount of carbon, and diverse fauna, including the endangered Sumatran tiger and kingfisher.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment says other low-lying islands are due to follow.
An estimated 1,500 Indonesian islands could be under water by 2050 and 24 have already reportedly disappeared off the coast of the provinces of Aceh, North Sumatra, Papua and Riau.
Four other South Sumatran islands – which are less than 4 metres above sea level – could follow suit, according to the environmental forum.
Vinod Thomas, formerly of the World Bank, said: “Scientists have issued warnings for decades about the chain of events: more carbon emissions, trapping of heat, rise in temperatures, melting glaciers, sea-level rise, flooding and disappearance of low-lying habitats.
“Now the disappearance of South Sumatra’s Betet and Gundul islands is part of a trend being established. It is only a matter of years before Jakarta, Bangkok and Miami face existential threats [after] the neglect of climate action over the past three critical decades,” Thomas added.
Indonesian carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 were 543 million tonnes, the 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy reported. It was a rise of 5.2 per cent, from 516.1 million tonnes in 2017. Indonesia contributed 1.6 per cent of global emissions in 2018.
Inevitably, the destruction of our planet comes back to finance.
Ratings firm Moody’s has warned that the loss of further islands will undermine Indonesia’s credit rating.
Moody’s said it would continue to reassess its ratings and “as climate change progresses and evidence from climate science evolves”.
South Sumatra has many palm oil plantations and coal mines and has seen repeated massive forest fires to clear land for cultivation.
Low-lying areas in northern Java, South Kalimantan and Dolok in southern Papua might also be at risk from the rising sea levels, said Intan Suci Nurhati, an oceanographer at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.
Indonesia’s problems with rising sea levels have largely been focused on Jakarta and other large cities.
On New Year’s Eve, the sinking capital of more than 10 million was hammered by some of its heaviest rain on record, killing around 60 people and forcing almost 175,000 from their homes.
Jakarta’s airport is forecast to be flooded by 2035 if the current trends continue.
Yesterday (Friday) the Yogyakarta authorities said a flash flood hit hundreds of students and teachers hiking along a Javan river in Sleman district, killing at least six of the children. Five others are reported missing.
For decades, Jakarta’s corrupt leaders have stripped the diverse archipelago of its forests, precious metals and fossil fuels and exploited its fertile soils. Environmental devastation is one of the consequences of their greed. Another is the anger and violence among the residents of neglected and exploited communities, like those in Papua.
Millions of poor Indonesians face eviction as sea levels rise around their homes. Picture credit: Wikimedia