Indonesians demand action against corporate arsonists

Submitted by Matthew on 11 November, 2015 - 12:41 Author: Janet Burstall

On 26 days in September and October, carbon emissions from Indonesia’s peat and forest fires equalled the daily emissions of the entire US economy.

The Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) also calculated that over the course of a three week period from late September, the output of carbon dioxide from the fires during three weeks from late September exceeded Germany’s annual total carbon emissions. Land concession owners illegally light fires every year in Indonesia. Arson is the cheapest way to clear the land before planting oil palms. The fires have caught the world’s attention this year. The haze has spread even further than usual, affecting people across Indonesia, including the capital Jakarta, and in neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

The fires are worse this year because El Nino (periodic warming of the Pacific ocean) has brought intense drought to South East Asia. The burning forests are on peatland that has been drained. Peatlands store vast quantities of carbon, and the conversion of a single hectare of Indonesian peatland rainforest releases up to 6,000 tons of CO2. Tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change. The fires form part of a vicious circle, increasing carbon emissions, which in turn contribute to the El Nino effect, which increases the frequency and intensity of droughts, which make forest fires more extensive and harder to put out.

The Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) identified over half a million people suffering Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) in six provinces between July 1 to 23 October 2015 and 43 million people exposed to the smoke. A BNPB spokesperson told CNN Indonesia that the “catastrophic fire and smoke are man-made disasters because 99 per cent of the causes of forest and land fires are intentional.”

Going outdoors is dangerous, schools have been closed, hospitals and health clinics stretched, young children and their families have been evacuated. Endangered species are being killed and their habitat destroyed. Economic losses from damage to agriculture, forest degradation, health, transportation, and tourism are estimated at $14 billion to $30 billion.

GAPKI, Indonesia’s palm oil trade association, claims that the industry is the victim of a smear campaign. But recent photos show freshly planted oil palm seedlings in the burned peatlands. The first photos were tweeted by a public official, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, head of Centre for Data, Information, and Public Relations of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency. Head of the Criminal Investigation Police Agency Commissioner said police had identified seven companies with foreign capital owners as suspects in the alleged arson. Five of the seven are Malaysian, one is Chinese. An alleged Australian connection is due to a stake of less than 1%. However, the largest oil companies, Sinar Mas and Wilmar, have not been named by police.

According to the Forum for the Environment (WALHI), most burning forests are owned by the Wilmar group. Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi-Jambi.com) says that Wilmar has 27 affiliated companies or subsidiaries, and Sinar Mas has 19, with forest fires in Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra, Riau and Jambi. Wilmar, the world’s leading palm oil company, is involved in 100 land conflicts and human rights violations in Indonesia alone. Sinar Mas has cleared tropical rainforest all over the country for its palm oil plantations, and is still expanding rapidly.

Sustainable agriculture website Alimenterre says “After having been denounced for human rights abuses, Wilmar, the largest palm oil trading company in the world, has been ranked as environmentally the worst performing firm as far as it concerns its environmental footprints and management.”

The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forests (KLHK) estimated the losses caused by the 2015 fires to be far in excess of the cost of corruption in Indonesia, which is generally recognised as a critical cost to the country. Greenpeace had warned in 2011 that then President Yudhoyono’s “moratorium” on forest destruction was too limited to protect the vast majority of forests that provide habitat to orang-utans, tigers and other endangered species, and would do little to protect additional forests. Instead changes to government regulations have made it easier for corporations to clear forests, as identified by Indonesia Corruption Watch. Corporations found guilty of breaking the Environment Act can be fined from 3-10 billion Rp (GBP1.5 million – GBP5million).

The KLHK claims the obstacles to successful prosecutions of the guilty include remote locations, difficulty of collecting conclusive evidence, insufficient experts to collect evidence, and a judiciary inexperienced in environmental law. Greenpeace has also identified Indonesian government’s failure to release concession maps for many years, which makes it impossible to know who is likely to have burned the land and hold them to account.

By late October people were organising campaigns and holding protest rallies in several provinces, demanding government action. Groups included the Alliance of North Sumatra People Against Haze, and Green Knights (Satria Hijau). The Teachers’ Forum Against Haze gathered 3,000 teachers calling on the government to declare the haze a national disaster as it had claimed lives. In West Sumatra, hundreds of students in face masks marched from Belakang Balok to the Bukittinggi city legislative council building. In Padang students and activists from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) distributed masks and leaflets to motorists.

In Riau province at least two groups have organised rallies of thousands. A new action group Revolusi Langit Biru, or Blue Sky Revolution, rallied, dressed in blue. Thousands of university students, teachers and lecturers in Pekanbaru marched from their campus to occupy the yard of the Riau governor’s office, calling their rally “Pledge against Haze”. The protesters began to lower the national flag, but police stopped them.

The Jakarta Post reported the demands of the Riau rally:
• The revocation of a gubernatorial decree allowing burning of land in certain areas
• The arrest of directors of corporations that burn land and the seizure of company assets
• Medical help for remote villages affected by the haze
• Revocation of half of all palm oil and industrial forest plantation permits to prevent haze in the future
• All political parties to establish medical centres to help residents suffering from haze-related diseases, or face boycott during the next regional elections

Activism amongst farmers against the land-grabbing of corporations has a longer history than the anti-haze protests. Organisations such as the Agrarian Resource Centre propose alternative approaches to land use. One proposal is to damn all the drainage canals that cause the peatlands to dry out. There are an estimated 2 million km of drainage canals in Indonesia’s peatlands, many built by companies. Areas that have been reflooded are less prone to catch fire, and the canals behind the dams fill with fish during the wet season, providing locals food and income during drier months.

The majority of the reported protests against the haze involve students and teachers in schools and universities, farmers, and environmental activists. Trade unions in Indonesia have organised energetic protests against the government on the cost of living, jobs and wages, in September and again in October. The trade union movement has been rejuvenating since a wave of protests in 2011-2012, causing headaches for the government. If the environmental and health movements sparked by the haze can link up with the newly energised trade union movement, it could be a taking off point for an alternative conception for the Indonesian economy, and for the Indonesian working class and farmers to unite against the combined ravages of corporate greed and corruption in government and administration.