“I’ve often wondered how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work. What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.”
These powerful words by George Monbiot came across my Newsfeed today, and they resonated. Indeed, until that moment, the only coverage I’d seen was in reference the unusual toxic haze affecting South-East Asia – with little mention of the underlying cause.
100,000 fires. That’s the cause. This many fires have been raging in Indonesia since July, when the annual slash-and-burn practices to prepare agricultural land for a new harvest spiraled out of control dramatically. The NYTimes reports that 17,000 km2 of forest and open land have been destroyed by the fires – that is about the size of Kuwait.
Unlike in other years, the fires spread to pristine forests that provide some of the last refuges of endangered species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers and wild elephants. The Guardian estimates that one third of the world’s wild orangutans are threatened. Imagine that.
Indeed, the Global Fire Watch map below shows well that many fires are located on Indonesian forest moratorium areas – areas that in 2011 were deemed vital for protection because they are primary forests or peatlands. Indeed, renewed again in May 2015, the moratorium is part of Indonesia’s pledge to curtail forest clearing in a US $1 billion deal with the Norwegian government. (Tip: This map is really cool to play with. Head on over and explore!)
Who’s To Blame?
So why are the fires so out of control this year? The dry El Nino conditions delayed rainfalls, but that’s not the only reason. Normally, primary forests and peatlands are wet enough to withstand sparks. However, poor management practices such as draining peatlands, forest clearance and canal construction have made them particularly vulnerable. Dry peatlands, indeed, even smolder underground, which makes fighting the fires a Herculean task.
In reporting the ‘disaster’, as Monbiot predicted, the media don’t go into a lot of detail of what caused it. The New York Times and Guardian articles each devote one sentence each – stating drily, for example, “each year, fires are intentionally set to clear land cheaply — for palm oil plantations, for pulp and paper mill operations, and for other agricultural uses — but they grew out of control this year because of prolonged drought and the effects of El Niño, scientists say.“
There is not a lot of effort made to drive this point home: These fires occur every year. They are worse this year, for sure, but they occur every year. To burn down forests. To produce palm oil and timber. The drivers of Indonesian export-led development.
Economists like to quantify things. So let’s quantify. Today, this ‘development’ is releasing greenhouse gases equivalent to the US economy’s daily emissions. Overall, it’s already surpassed Germany’s yearly emissions. It’s estimated to cost the region $14 billion to $30 billion in purely economic terms, not counting health issues and deaths tolls affected by the pollution, nor the environmental costs that we can only speculate about.
Actually, there was one voice of reason that appeared – Luhut B. Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs:
Asked if the Indonesian government had mishandled the crisis in its earlier weeks, Mr. Luhut said the country’s “one mistake” was in approving palm oil concessions on 14.8 million acres of peatlands during the past decade, which when drained and burned to clear land for agriculture emit high levels of carbon dioxide into the air.
But what lessons will be drawn from this ‘catastrophe’? The Indonesian government is still boosting this part of its economy with all its might. A recent report estimates that there currently 10 subsidies from the government that support timber harvest and 19 subsidies that encourage palm oil production.
Until 2020, the government wants to increase palm oil production by 60% – adding an estimated 7 million acres of current forest to the existing 11 million acres of palm oil plantations.
And on top of that, the country has recently announced a $1.35 billion domestic biofuel subsidy and mandatory blending that will further incentivize deforestation. It’s hard to imagine what impacts these policies will have on an already ravaged ecosystem.
These are not ‘environmental tragedies’. Not ‘natural catastrophes’. These are man-made, policy-supported decisions that have dire consequences – possibly unintended, but definitely irresponsible effects that many suffer from. Even the economy proper that it was supposed to benefit. Why aren’t these policies – and alternative development paths for Indonesia – the news?
Top image: by CIFOR, via Flickr CC.