Indonesian fires: world environmental crisis – corporations responsible

1. Setting a country alight: Indonesia’s devastating forest fires are manmade
The Guardian (Australia) – November 7, 2015 Irhash Ahmady and Sam Cossar-Gilbert
We are witnessing the worst manmade environmental disaster since the BP gulf oil spill. Huge, out-of-control fires rage through the forests of Indonesia — and the source of many is the practice of deliberately burning the land to clear it for palm oil and paper products.
Update: may 2016
Indonesia’s 1966 anti-communism leads to today’s disasters
Thousands of fires have been lit to clear land simply because it is 75% cheaper than other methods. By burning down forests companies can get access to the land and can commence industrial pulp and palm oil plantations.
The blazes are occurring in the peatland forests of Kalimantan and Sumatra, which is a unique wetland ecosystem home to threatened species. Over the past three months, toxic haze from fires has harmed millions of people in Indonesia, and is believed to have been fatal for some. The crisis is so bad that Friends of the Earth Indonesia/WALHI is providing face masks, and health checkups, and evacuating vulnerable groups to safety.

A thick layer of smog has engulfed the country. Data released by Indonesia’s meteorological, climatological and geophysics agency showed that the city of Palangkaraya has become one of the most polluted places on earth. Corporate greed is literally choking the people of Indonesia.

Friends of Earth Indonesia/WALHI and its five regional offices have been conducting investigations of companies suspected of involvement in the fires and triggering the smoke and haze problems in Indonesia. They overlaid the concession maps of the companies, and tracked the names of companies mentioned by the environment and forestry minister. Many of the land concessions of those companies are in the precious peatland area.

Already a number of company executives have been arrested for their suspected role in starting illegal forest fires, some of whom supply pulp products to the giant logging corporation Asian Pulp and Paper (APP).

The fires that have been started deliberately
are part of a process which usually involves building canals to block water to the beautiful peatlands; thereby drying it out and enabling deliberately lit fires to burn. This drains the life out of these naturally-moist tropical forests, dries them out, and enables deliberately lit fires to burn. In time, companies and contractors will return to plant endless rows of palm oil and wood plantations in their place.
Many companies have adopted “zero burn” policy positions or other voluntary sustainability measures for their supply chains. APP says it has had a zero burning policy since 1996 and will stop using suppliers involved in burning land. But the current fires demonstrate that we cannot expect companies — and their financiers — to regulate themselves. It is necessary to have binding rules for business to stop these abusive practices wherever they may occur.

In Indonesia the general public and civil society is fighting back –mobilising in the streets, conducting scientific research and organising legal action against the companies believed to be most responsible for the fires, as well as against local and regional governments for neglecting to sufficiently tackle the issue.

The Indonesian government must act in a more structural and systematic way to address this issue, by reviewing all corporations’ land concessions, arresting executives and dealing out large fines. A national moratorium on peat clearing must be installed to prevent further disasters with massive impacts on people and biodiversity.

However, this is not just a local or national concern. Forest fires are also one of the leading causes of global warming, and in the lead up to the Paris climate summit in December they will be centre stage. Bloomberg estimated that on 14 October carbon emissions from the fires alone reached 61 megatons, almost 97% of the country’s total daily emissions.

The economic drivers of these fires are also global, with multinational companies and investment firms putting profit over people. For the palm oil and pulp products produced in the ashes of these deadly blazes will end up in the snack food and printing paper of western consumers.

In 2014, a Friends of the Earth Europe report highlighted the role that international banks and financial institutions play in funding the exploitation and deforestation of the palm oil industry.

So how can we ensure corporations are held responsible? Traditionally,
international law focuses on the role and responsibilities of states, rather than corporations. In our globalised world, companies operate between different national jurisdictions and are often able to take advantage of this situation to escape accountability.

In July 2015, a historic UN meeting took place in Geneva, beginning a process to address this gap in international law and bring justice to victims of corporate crimes, like those in Indonesia.

We are working alongside the UN Human Rights Council, the Vatican and many diverse governments on a new UN human rights treaty, which aims to establish new and binding rules on transnational corporations.

It is difficult to grasp the immense size and impact of the ongoing environmental and human disaster in Indonesia. The fire and haze could cost Indonesia US$35bn, roughly 4% of Indonesia’s gross national product. The neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Singapore are also experiencing poor visibility and school closures due to the acute health risks.

Friends of the Earth Indonesia/WALHI is helping to evacuate vulnerable groups, such as babies and infants, breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women and the elderly, to safety.

As forest fires continue to destroy lives and nature, we will continue to work tirelessly from the local to the international level to bring the responsible companies to justice, so that this kind of manmade disaster does not happen again.

[Irhash Ahmady is network manager at Friends of the Earth Indonesia/WALHI — and tweets from @newmosette. Sam Cossar-Gilbert is programme coordinator with Friends of the Earth International and tweets from @samcossar.]

2. Indonesia is burning. So why is the world looking away? George Monbiot
Fire is raging across the 5,000km length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page. It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

‘The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?’

But that doesn’t really capture it. This catastrophe cannot be measured only in parts per million. The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis. Orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.

One of the burning provinces is West Papua, a nation that has been illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1963. I spent six months there when I was 24, investigating some of the factors that have led to this disaster. At the time it was a wonderland, rich with endemic species in every swamp and valley. Who knows how many of those have vanished in the past few weeks? This week I have pored and wept over photos of places I loved that have now been reduced to ash.

Nor do the greenhouse gas emissions capture the impact on the people of these lands. After the last great conflagration, in 1997, there was a missing cohort in Indonesia of 15,000 children under the age of three, attributed to air pollution. This, it seems, is worse.

The surgical masks being distributed across the nation will do almost nothing to protect those living in a sunless smog. Members of parliament in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have had to wear face masks during debates. The chamber is so foggy that they must have difficulty recognising one another.

It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself.

A great tract of Earth is on fire and threatened species are being driven out of their habitats.

This is a crime against humanity and nature.

3. Scientists warn of untold health damage from Indonesia’s haze Thomson Reuters Foundation – November 11, 2015

Bangkok — Toxic fumes from the Indonesian fires that have spread a choking haze across Southeast Asia may be doing more harm to human and plant health than officials have indicated, scientists measuring the pollution say.

Farmers are expecting a poor harvest because plants have too little sunlight for normal photosynthesis, while government figures of half a million sickened by the smoke are only the “tip of the iceberg,” said Louis Verchot, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Meanwhile, the fires are converting carbon stored in burning peatlands into greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

“When the sun goes up, the whole world is yellow. On the worst day, the visibility was less than 100 meters,” said Verchot, who led a workshop on the crisis in Central Kalimantan province last month with about 20 scientists from Indonesia, the United States and Britain.

While taking measurements on a burning 5,000-hectare plot, the scientists — equipped with gas masks and a drone — trod carefully across the ash-covered peatland to avoid calf-deep holes, hot from the smoldering underground.

They are still analyzing their data, but Verchot said they had found harmful gases in the air including ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde, nitric oxide and methane.

“It irritates your eyes, it irritates your throat. Without a mask, I don’t know how people live in this stuff,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone
from Jakarta.

Many people wear simple masks that are ineffective at filtering the dangerous compounds, or no masks at all, he added.

The smoke from the fires on Borneo, Sumatra and elsewhere in Indonesia has spread to neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Local media reported that schools in Central Kalimantan had closed for almost five weeks over the past two months, while the haze killed at least 10 people and sickened 504,000 on Borneo and Sumatra — though Verchot believes the figure is much higher.

“People in rural areas seek medical attention when it’s really bad. I’m pretty sure it’s an underestimate. This must be the people who are seriously affected,”
he said.

Carbon monoxide in hotel

Daytime flights to Central Kalimantan have been postponed to night when winds blow the all-permeating smoke in a direction that improves visibility for landing, Verchot said.

Martin Wooster, a professor at King’s College London who joined Verchot on the trip, tested his equipment in his hotel room, several kilometers from the fires, and found 30 molecules of carbon monoxide per million molecules of air — enough to trigger a household carbon monoxide detector.

Outside near the burning peatlands, Wooster’s preliminary data indicates more than 1,000 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air, and sometimes up to 2,000.

The US Environmental Protection Agency considers any amount over 300 micrograms per cubic meter hazardous.

“I’d never seen anything like that… I thought it was catastrophic for the local population, having to live with that level of air pollution for such an extended period of time,” said Wooster, who has studied burning biomass in Mexico, Canada, South Africa and Britain.

“The geographic coverage of the smoke was enormous. You could drive for many tens of kilometers and still be in thick smoke. And it is persisting for weeks, even months,” he said by telephone from London.

Predictable and preventable

The smokiest burn sites in Indonesia are the tropical peatlands that large companies and small-scale farmers have deforested and drained for agriculture, palm oil and wood products such as pulp and paper. Lacking a forest canopy, the dried-out peatlands are prone to fire.

Once considered a problem mainly in drought years, the smoldering fires on these “forest cemeteries” of dried peat and wood debris are now occurring annually.

This year has been particularly bad due to lower rainfall linked to the El Niqo weather phenomenon, although recent downpours have doused some of the fires and reduced the haze.

While the Indonesian government is struggling to control the crisis, Verchot described the haze as “totally preventable.”

“This was predicted. The solution is not reacting to the crisis, it’s preventing the crisis,” he said. “It requires serious effort. It’s something the government could do if they wanted to.”

CIFOR has urged a reduction in forest conversion and peatland cultivation, better income opportunities in rural areas, and restoration of degraded peatlands.

Greenpeace has called on the pulp and palm oil industries to implement an immediate ban on forest and peatland development, and for peatlands to be reflooded to mitigate fire risks.

To discourage palm oil-related forest destruction, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other green groups have lobbied for companies to trade and use palm oil that is not produced in a way that causes deforestation.


4. Whilst rain has fallen across some parts of Indonesia easing some of the haze and dampening some fires, the risk is still high and the situation is still serious. Fires burn deep down in the peat and hot spots can flare up at any time. To date over two million hectares have burned.

Riau in Sumatra have extended the haze emergency for another month.
“The Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) in the Riau capital of Pekanbaru decided to extend the emergency as there are still hot spots in next-door South Sumatra province, while significant rainfall has yet to take place in Riau itself”

To date, 43,000,000 people have been exposed to the haze, 505,000 have suffered from respiratory illness, the fires have cost $14 billion including environmental damage, health expenses and business loses, 99% of fires are caused by human activity, 115,940 likely fires detected by NASA and for 26 days the green house gas emissions from the fires exceed the estimated daily average for the entire USA

Full stories:‪

From Greenpeace

More stories
ABC TV report
Indonesia’s fires labelled a ‘crime against humanity’ as 500,000 suffer.
Haze has caused havoc, with schools in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia shut down, flights grounded and events cancelled.
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And at the same time Indonesia’s political elite refuses to debate the 1966 massacres and bans Bali discussion at literary festival


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