Indonesia’s palm oil fires: Interview with Friends of the Earth Indonesia
by Jeff Conant, international forests campaigner
Massive forest fires have engulfed Indonesia for several months, and produce more daily CO2 emissions than the entire U.S. economy. The fires are responsible for as many as 500,000 cases of respiratory infections, and are directly threatening the world’s last orangutans; for all of this, the fires are being referred to as a crime against humanity.
This particular crime against humanity can be directly traced to the palm oil and pulp and paper industries, which use fire to clear land, and which drain and dry out fragile carbon-rich peatlands that are the main source of the fires. Down the road from the palm oil companies themselves are the consumer companies like Starbucks, PepsiCo, Kraft, Heinz and Unilever, that have not done enough to prevent disasters like this one. As British journalist George Monbiot urges, don’t buy their products until they change. Also implicated are banks, asset managers and pension funds that have billions of dollars in palm oil, and very few policies to prevent them from financing the worst companies in the sector.
In response to the crisis, Friends of the Earth Indonesia, known as WALHI for its acronym in Bahasa Indonesia, has prepared safe houses in five provinces, and is distributing face masks, oxygen and free medical checkups for the public. They are also raising public awareness that these fires are man-made and not natural disasters, lobbying the government, and filing lawsuits against the multinational companies most responsible for the fires, as well as against local and regional governments for neglecting to sufficiently tackle the issue.
The palm oil campaigners at Friends of the Earth Netherlands recently sat down with WALHI Director Abetnego Tarigan to ask him some questions about the forest fires in Indonesia. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What are the causes of the fires?
A: It is clear that the areas where the fires are most severe overlap with the regions where oil palm expansion has taken place over the last few years: West and Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra. Between 2007 and 2011 alone, 14.7 million hectares were given out by local governments to open up land for plantations. For the development of oil palm plantations on peatland, the land is drained by digging drainage canals. Dry peatland is easily combusted when in contact with fire. Burning the land for clearing is also 75 percent cheaper than clearing the land.
Q: Would you say that oil palm plantations cause the fires?
A: Our research shows that half of the hotspots are inside the boundaries of companies’ permitted concessions. This does not mean that the companies started the fire, but by law the company is responsible to prevent fires within their concessions and fight them when they occur. The research of WALHI shows that companies do not always follow the law, and we gather evidence to share with the authorities.
Q: Which companies are responsible for the forest and peat fires?
A: WALHI has collected extensive data on companies linked to the hotspots of the fire. We also looked at suppliers and subsidiaries and know that also the bigger palm oil, pulp and paper companies are involved. The fires are found despite these companies’ “No burning, no deforestation and no peat” policies.
Q: Which European financiers are involved?
A: Almost all private banks and pension funds in the Netherlands, including Rabobank, and pension funds ABP and PGGM, as well as other EU countries such as France and UK are providing financial services to the palm oil sector. All these have adopted voluntary policies that palm oil companies need to comply with. Yet we see that there is a link between palm oil activities and the fires. We call on all Dutch financiers that are providing financial services to this sector to rethink/withdraw their money, so as to avoid the risk that their money will be used by companies engaged in the forest fires. [Note: because the interview was carried out in the Netherlands, it does not focus on U.S. financiers: the largest financiers of palm oil in the U.S. include equity investors BlackRock, Vanguard, Bank of New York Mellon, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase, Dimensional Fund Advisors, and the pension funds CalPERS and TIAA-CREF.]
Q: What is the impact of the fire on health?
A: More than 40 million people are exposed to the haze on Borneo and Sumatra alone. More than 500,000 people in Indonesia have sought treatment for respiratory problems and already 21 people have died, of which most are babies, since the fires began in September. This number keeps increasing as the fires continue. Therefore, WALHI has been setting up evacuation centers in five provinces to help relieve the suffering.
Q: What is the impact of the fire on biodiversity?
A: Large areas of peat and forest land are lost to the fire. This has a serious impact on biodiversity, for example the habitiat of orangutans are endangered, but also insects are affected by the haze, from previous years we know the bees will produce less honey after extensive forest fires. Therefore, it is crucial to protect peatland areas from development of new plantations.
Q: What is the impact of the fire on the economy?
A: The export of palm oil from Indonesia in 2014 amounts to $21 billion USD. At the same time the costs of the forest fires are now estimated at 14 billion dollars and will continue to grow. This number does not incorporate the loss of livelihood of local farmers and indigenous peoples who depend on honey and other products from the forest.
Q: What is WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia doing now?
A: WALHI gathers data to sue the companies responsible for the fire hotspots inside their concessions, and also in the concessions of subsidiaries and suppliers. Next to the companies, the role of local governments is important, and corruption is common; when permits are handed out in violation of the peat moratorium, officials need to be brought to court as well. Local WALHI groups are setting up evacuation centers to give vulnerable people a safe place to recover from the health impacts of the haze.
Q: What does WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia want to happen?
A: The Indonesian government needs to review the permits given to companies. Because a lot goes wrong in social conflict, corruption and overlaps with national parks, for example. Second, the corporate crime needs to be tackled. This means that the police should not only punish the people who started the fire, but also the neglect by companies to fight the fires in their concessions. And third, on a policy level, the national government should implement the peat moratorium and protect it to prevent loss of biodiversity and negative climate impact.
Q: What does WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia want from the international community?
A: We need a binding agreement to stop climate change.
Q: What can we do outside Indonesia?
A: Governments should realize that despite improving practices of the palm oil industry and its financiers, big problems persevere. Therefore, they should take the lead in establishing rules for financiers who want to invest in this sector, and also support NGOs’s demands on the Indonesian government for a moratorium on new concessions.
Financiers should realize that despite good policies, the reality remains difficult and if they want to be sure they are not providing financial services to palm oil companies engaged in forest fires, they should withdraw their money from the sector.
Friends of the Earth U.S. will soon be reaching out to help WALHI put out the fires and protect public health. Stay tuned!