Indonesia’s forest fires will continue to burn while corruption drives limitless opportunities to exploit and profit from the cultivation of resources.
Millions of hectares of land are cleared each year to make way for ravenous palm oil plantations of which Indonesia and Malaysia yield nearly 90% of global production.
Palm oil is to Indonesia like corn oil is to Americans. It is the basis of a multitude of foods and other products but ethically and nutritiously controversial.
Apart from reports alleging that palm oil contains unhealthy levels of saturated fats, palm oil plantations provide a path to development that conflicts with human rights and environmental sustainability.
World Vision and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) claim child labour is rife in Indonesian palm oil plantations with children as young as nine engaged in difficult and dangerous work.
According to World Vision, forced, trafficked, and child labour forms the exploitative basis of a product used in almost half of all packaged food in supermarkets.
Palm oil companies often cite their commitment to responsible practices through membership to the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), however this organisation has been discredited by 250 environment and human rights groups who in 2008 signed an "International Declaration against the Greenwashing of Palm Oil by the RSPO".
Palm oil plantations are difficult to regulate and monitor as they provide kickbacks and profits for officials, executives, security companies, police, military and other links in the chain.
Those involved in the sale of licenses, forced displacement, trafficking and child labour, and even the murder of dissenters are many and varied, but undoubtedly these practices cannot continue without being overlooked by public officials and government.
In 2011 a video emerged which showed mutilated bodies and two farmers allegedly beheaded by security forces hired to defend palm oil company PT Silva Inhutani Lampung in South Sumatera. This incident was tied to conflict around the displacement of thousands of locals.
Whether the 8,343 forest fires recorded in the first half of this year were caused by local communities or plantation companies, the palm oil industry illustrates the ongoing tendency for corruption to perpetuate extractive economic and political systems in Indonesia.
Air pollution caused by Indonesian fires is the number one issue on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) agenda right now, and Indonesia has promised to ratify the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution brokered in 2002air with four other ASEAN countries, but progress on the issue is discouraging.
Indonesia is the only member of ASEAN which has still not ratified the bloc’s agreement as legislator approval was rejected in 2008.
Indonesia has been evasive about taking blame; some government ministers including Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Senior Minister Agung Laksono, initially played down the severity of a situation that forced Kuala Lumpur to declare a state of emergency with the worst recorded air pollution index in ten years.
The overall Indonesian government response was to reproach other states for a lack of sympathy and to assert defensively that it was taking decisive action to eradicate the fires which have also killed dozens of Indonesians.
However, while Indonesia has said it will make concession maps for fire prone areas available to other governments, it seems like it is protecting companies by refusing to make them available to the public.
Concession maps show which companies can plant crops or log a particular tracts of land, allowing them to be investigated and prosecuted for fires.
Indonesia’s provinces in Sumatera and Kalimantan are still suffering along with its closest neighbours in Malaysia and Singapore, who view the haze as a trespass on the rights of people’s access to safe air quality.
It is becoming impossible to live, at least in good health, in those areas the yearly hazes affect, yet while there has been uproar from Malaysian and Singaporean citizens, Indonesians have been comparatively quiet despite being poisoned themselves.
In the process of deforestation, land is cleared most quickly and cheaply by burning. Peat land in particular needs to be burnt as peat hinders the growth of palm trees. Although burning is illegal, two thirds of forest fires occur on peat land.
Peat, which can smoulder for months, is toxic when burnt and emits copious amounts of greenhouse gases, more than coal and natural gas. Indonesia has more peat swamp forest than any other country in the world.
Expatriate David (last name withheld) said the air quality in Sumatera is unbearable. The smell of smoke is everywhere and a layer of ash regularly blankets the floor and furniture in his house.
David believes very few people are acting in the face of such a serious environmental and health issue.
“I wonder how long this national pastime of denial can go on for? It goes to the very heart of the Indonesian political and bureaucratic system,” he said.
Not only is regional funding a huge source of revenue for corrupt politicians and local officials, but according to Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) researcher Donal Fariz, patterns of regional corruption vary according to each region’s natural and mineral resource potential.
It is therefore not surprising to hear that North Sumatera, a big culprit in the forest fires, also accounts for the largest recorded amounts of misappropriated public funds. However it is Central Kalimantan, another smoking gun, which holds the title for most resource graft.
In a Jakarta Globe report ICW said it has submitted a claim to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to investigate corruption in the resources sector as estimates put potential combined losses from corruption in the forestry sector at Rp 15.9 trillion a year.
Decentralisation deferred power along with the flow of money, and the rising air pollution index is a direct result of what this has entailed.
In the same report Boni Hargens from the University of Indonesia said “local bosses have formed their own system, a feudal one, in which they control virtually all lines of regional funding”.
Feudalism, an extractive economic and political system controlled by predatory elites, has not been stamped out by democracy but rather, is currently contributing to democratic stagnation.
ICW predicts a surge in corruption ahead of the 2014 elections due to the costs incurred to run campaigns and win an election.
Palm oil corruption involves a chain of participants such as local officials, political parties, businesses, organised crime groups, and security forces.
It is therefore not in the interests of political parties or their constituents to regulate the issuance of permits, crack down on illegal burning, or limit the regional autonomy that provides a corrupt source of revenue, thus the haze is not likely to clear as long as corruption fuels the industry.
August 2013Lauren Gumbs as a freelance journalist who is based in Surabaya, East Java