Why Southeast Asia Burned

— Dianne Feeley

SATELLITE IMAGES SHOW that almost one million hectares have been affected by the forest fires that were deliberately set last July in the lowland tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Some of the area includes peat forests, where fires can burn deep underground and are almost impossible to control on a large scale.

At least 70 million people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines have been affected, as thousands have sought treatment for respiratory problems, eye and skin irritations and asthma. Almost 300 million tons of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere, leading to global warming and immediate weather changes. Poor visibility has led to shortages of goods as well as to traffic fatalities.

The haze also hampered the ripening of fruits, adversely affected coffee and cocoa production and prevented fishing boats from putting out to sea. Smoke also cuts down the light, thus reducing photosynthesis, which powers the entire ecological system.

Since 1982 large-scale forest fires have broken out in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Java with the onset of each dry season. These fires coincide with the rapid increase of logging and plantation activities the Indonesian government promotes. About 64 million hectares—one-third of Indonesia's land mass—is currently devoted to commercial logging. In fact, in 1996 Indonesia became the world's largest plywood exporter.

But although a ministerial report released last September blamed 176 logging and plantation firms in eight provinces, the major obstacle to ending the conditions that create the fires is President Suharto himself.

Many of the logging companies are owned by his closest friends and associates. These include Liem Sioe Liong (Salim Group) , supposedly the wealthiest man in Indonesia, and Mohammad “Bob” Hasan, who plays golf with Suharto two or three times a week. Hasan is founder of the Indonesian Plywood Association, which controls plywood exports, and heads both the Indonesian Timber Society and the Indonesian Furniture Association. Prayogo Pangestu of the Barito Pacific Group also has close ties to Suharto's eldest daughter.

Similarly, Indonesia's neighbors have failed to pressure Jakarta because of nepotism and political links among Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian timber and plantation firms.

On September 9, 1997 President Suharto reissued a 1995 ban on burning the forest and called on the military to help enforce the law. Companies were given until October 3 to prove they were not the culprits. The number of fires immediately increased, as companies rushed to clear as much land as possible before the deadline. But even if the deadline was strictly adhered to, it would only enable companies to finish clearing the land as the rainy season begins!

As late as September 28, Indonesia's coordinating minister for people's welfare Azwar Anas attempted to shift the blame to El Ni<164>o, saying “It's a natural disaster which no one could have prevented.”

Scientists have speculated that El Ni<164>o is getting worse because deforestation and subsequent erosion are affecting air currents over surface water in the coastal areas of Asia. But it is not a natural disaster. Indonesia's transmigration program moves people from the densely populated islands to provinces like Kalimantan, Irian Jaya (West Papua) and East Timor. These “development” policies not only open up new areas to capitalist development but overwhelm ethnic groups perceived as “backward.” And these projects—which involve clearing forests—until recently were championed and funded by the World Bank and the IMF.

ATC 72, January-February 1998

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