Where there’s palm oil, there’s fire: Part II of III
by Jeff Conant, international forests campaigner
I don’t share a common language with the man on whose motorbike I ride, so we ride along in silence; but hints that come later suggest that he and the other men who accompany us are workers in the plantations. There are many companies that operate in the area, most of them supplying palm oil to the big global commodity traders like Wilmar International, Golden Agri-Resources, and Cargill. While some of the companies prefer to use migrant labor, some, including the plantation we’re visiting now, use mostly locals, whose land this is — or was. As M explains to us
“Most of the workers here are people whose land has been appropriated, legally or not, by the company.” He says they consider themselves to be “perbudakan” — slaves.
Some of them find moments of liberation in a struggle to get their lands back. They earn their daily pay planting and harvesting palm tree fruits. But secretly, they sneak off and support any efforts they can to fight the company and restore the forest.
At a certain point the smoke grows worse, now not just blanketing the air but blowing up in billows from brush fires burning all around us. We turn on our motorbikes onto a small path through low green scrub and then into a landscape of charred snags of trees and blackened soil, with smoke rising everywhere.
M takes us to an ad-hoc campsite at the edge of the national park — inside the boundaries of the new palm oil concession, he says — where we are to spend the night. When we arrive, the sight is awful: acres of burnt young trees and bursts of open flame engulf the brush on two sides of us. In the direction of the national park, the silhouette of taller trees forms a gray horizon in the smoke.
“We’re really spending the night here?” I ask M, nervous.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “The fire won’t come here — that’s peat burning. Here we have about twenty meters of dry soil all around that won’t burn. In the night, the dew will suppress the fires. We’ll be fine.”
Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening, bursts of open flame light the darkening edge of the forest. Occasionally, as night descends, we can see vertical flames licking up a tree and then spreading across the canopy. Every so often, we hear the slow-motion crash of a tree collapsing. We spread our sleeping bags out on the dry soil, our lungs filled with smoke. Below our campsite, about 100 meters distant, an open wildfire is burning in a low plain.
Since this summer’s fires started, WALHI, with regional offices throughout Indonesia, has been working to address the public health crisis especially among children, pregnant women and the elderly; they’ve opened health posts in five provinces, and are handing out face masks as a basic measure to reduce harm. As the problem has grown worse, they are now evacuating the most vulnerable people to safe houses provided with air purifier facilities.
Even as they work to ameliorate the worst health risks, WALHI is running an awareness campaign to educate people that the fires and haze — now a regular occurrence every summer — is neither a natural disaster nor something to be accepted or taken for granted. WALHI has also been pressuring the government to take immediate actions:
- Such as blocking company drainage canals in order to re wet the peat lands.
- More political efforts such as enforcing the national ban on clearing.
- Reviewing all plantation concession permits to root out illegality and punish the responsible parties.
While many of the large plantation companies in Indonesia blame the fires on peasant farmers — who generally supply the companies with oil palm fruit and thus have a strong incentive to plant as much of their land as possible in oil palm — WALHI’s investigations have shown that at least 10 oil palm conglomerates are involved in triggering the catastrophe.
WALHI is supporting a class action suit against companies suspected of burning land. The organization has won similar cases in the past — during forest fires that destroyed millions of acres in 1998, and again in 2000. But in the past decade-and-a-half, the organization has not won any more claims.
When Mongabay interviewed six of the leading palm oil companies working in Indonesia about the fires, none of the companies acknowledged their role in creating the conditions that exacerbate haze and fires, despite the common knowledge that draining peatlands and replacing forests with industrial monocultures dries out the peat and turns it from waterlogged swamp to meters’ deep tinder.
“Instead,” writes Mongabay, “companies cited illegal encroachment and spread of fires from adjacent areas.”
For its part, Wilmar International, the largest palm oil company in the world, and the first to commit to a comprehensive sustainability policy in late 2013, told Mongabay, “While we are committed to no burning, we recognize that slash-and-burn practices remain rampant among small-scale farmers and local communities. Research has found that majority of fires on agricultural land occur outside of oil palm concessions, and these are often managed by small companies and small-scale farmers. Clearing land by mechanical means cost significantly more, compared to using fire which is the most cost-effective way of clearing land for them. This often leads to uncontrolled fires that may inevitably spread to our plantations or those of our suppliers.”
However, given the complex supply chains in which hundreds of small companies and individual farmers supply the larger companies, which in turn supply the retail companies that provide snack food to consumers in the U.S. and Europe, it is disingenuous of the large traders to shrug off responsibility.
With a sharp uptick in the pressure to stop the burning due to increased global awareness, companies are extremely sensitive to criticism. But local observers suggest that some companies have adapted: instead of burning before they plant on peat, they now plant and then burn, extinguishing only the fires that threaten production. And rather than having company employees set fires, they encourage smallholder farmers to do it, and then, when they’re accused of breaking the law, they blame the farmers.
It’s exceedingly difficult to prove such allegations, but given the long history of impunity enjoyed by the world’s largest Asian agribusinesses, it’s not hard to believe.
Ultimately, regardless of blame, the solutions lie in enforcing stronger land use policies and in strengthening efforts to reduce the incentives that encourage companies to continue their rapacious practices. As WALHI says,
“The immediate solutions are obvious: a complete and enforced fire ban, especially on peat; a major scale-up of firefighting efforts, using all available means, national and international; and a prohibition on further peat development and funding for peat restoration.”
The group also signals that “There is an immediate need to start divesting from all agricultural production on peat, or only allowing production that can ensure near-surface water tables. For the areas of drained, degraded peatland not under agriculture there needs to be massive programs to block and fill all canals, followed by reforestation to get something like a humid micro climate at the peat surface.”