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

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:

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?
 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 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 29,308 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 16,041 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 10,468 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 10,409 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 10,371 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 8,738 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 4,997 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
Our Obsession With 'Good Immigrants' Breeds Intolerance
2 min · 3,744 views today · Society sets the bar so high to become a 'good immigrant', argues writer Nikesh Shukla, that normal immigrants are demonised. He says non-Brits in the public eye have a simple...
My Cuba - An Intimate Look at the Pleasures and Struggles of 6 Different People's Cuba
150 min · 1,988 views today · Cuba - diverse, vibrant and complex - is undergoing immense change. But what does it mean to be Cuban in this time of change? Six people. Six films. From the comedy and ballet...
Bird Watching on Lesvos Island - A Poetic Call to Stand With Refugees
3 min · 1,960 views today · Born in Darfur, Sudan and raised in Philadelphia, Emi Mahmoud is the 2015 World Poetry Slam Champion and the Women of the World co-Champion of 2016. From a young age Emi...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,872 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Important Difference Between Love and Being Loved
2 min · 1,567 views today · We talk of love as if it were just one thing: in fact, it’s two very different moves, Loving and Being Loved. You start to grow up when you stop focusing on the latter and get...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 1,334 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
The Untold History of Palestine & Israel
22 min · 1,299 views today · Previewing Abby Martin’s on-the-ground investigation in Palestine, The Empire Files looks at the long history of Zionist colonization, expansion and expulsion of Palestine’s...
Introversion Is Not a Personality Fail
Cat Elz · 1,252 views today · A few years ago, I got into an argument with my now mother-in-law over my supposedly “backwards” ways. My transgression? I did not attend a party of my now husband’s (then...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 954 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Alliance of 600,000 British Doctors Calls for 'Imperative' Coal Phase-Out
Nadia Prupis · 938 views today · Doing so would constitute 'double win for tackling the twin health threats of air pollution and climate change,' report states
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 895 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Lessons in the Calais Jungle: Teaching Life Stories and Learning About Humanity
Aura Lounasmaa · 802 views today · I am part of a team of academics teaching a course to residents in the Calais Jungle, a camp for migrants and refugees outside the French city. Life Stories in the Jungle has...
Are You Lost in the World Like Me?
3 min · 735 views today · Animated film by Steve Cutts for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', taken from These Systems Are Failing- the debut album from Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. 
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Indonesia's Palm Oil Fires: Interview With Friends of the Earth Indonesia