Indonesia's Palm Oil Fires: Interview With Friends of the Earth Indonesia
By Jeff Conant / medium.com

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 journalistGeorge 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 WALHIfor 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:

Abetnego Tarigan, director of WALHI. Photo credit: http://www.misereor.de/

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.

Plantation worker fighting peat fires within a palm oil plantation in Central Kalimantan in 2015. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain

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.

Burning peat in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2015. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain

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.

Charred soil and leaves from forest fire in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2015. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain
3.5 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 14,972 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 13,453 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
Rap News Special Edition: Hillary Clinton Vs Donald Trump
7 min · 10,822 views today · Hello world. RAP NEWS is back for a special episode on the 2016 USA Election mayhem, feat. Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump + a touch of Jill Stein & Gary Johnson. This one's...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 8,056 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 5,912 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 5,591 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 5,394 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
The International Criminal Court May Start Prosecuting People Who Commit Crimes Against the Environment
Tara Smith · 5,163 views today · The International Criminal Court is not known for prosecuting people responsible for huge oil slicks, chopping down protected rainforests or contaminating pristine land. But...
Humanity's Greatest Challenges Aren't Technical, They're Human
8 min · 4,856 views today · Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is incomplete as we commonly know it. Later in his life, Maslow wrote about a stage beyond self-actualization. Nichol Brandford explains how to...
Caitlin Moran's Posthumous Advice for Her Daughter
Caitlin Moran · 4,853 views today · My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to...
The Culture of Maximum Harm
Daniel Quinn · 4,682 views today · People have lived many different ways on this planet, but about ten thousand years ago there appeared one people who believed everyone in the world should live a single...
The Journey From Syria (2016)
71 min · 3,333 views today · Reporter Matthew Cassel spent a year documenting the journey of Syrian jeweler Aboud Shalhoub as he travels from Turkey to Greece, and through Eastern Europe to the Netherlands...
10 Photos That Show the Magnificent Light Shining on Standing Rock
Josue Rivas · 2,258 views today · Despite all the news of pipeline regulation, court appeals, and activist arrests, Native photographer Josue Rivas reminds us that it is actually a peaceful place.
The Left Deserves Better Than Jill Stein
Kate Aronoff · 1,908 views today · Stein’s Green Party run doesn’t offer a plan to win, or to build power. The Left is capable of so much more.
Prince Ea Just Put The School System on Trial and Found it Guilty of Killing Free Thought
6 min · 1,832 views today · Albert Einstien once said "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid". Today Prince...
The Little Engine That Couldn't: How We're Preparing Ourselves and Our Children for Extinction
Daniel Quinn · 1,738 views today · In a recent semi-documentary film called Garbage, a toxic waste disposal engineer was asked how we can stop engulfing the world in our poisons. His answer was, "We'd have to...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,205 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Debt, Inequality and the Logic of Financial Violence
David Graeber · 1,159 views today · Five years after Occupy, organizer and anthropologist David Graeber speaks to ROAR about the power of finance, the history of inequality and the legacy of the movement.
This Satirical Trump Vs. Bernie Debate Is Both Hilarious and Highly Disturbing
44 min · 1,127 views today · Comedians James Adomian (Bernie Sanders) and Anthony Atamanuik (Donald Trump) bring two of the most controversial candidates in history, head-to-head, or rather bald-to-toupee...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 1,093 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Indonesia's Palm Oil Fires: Interview With Friends of the Earth Indonesia