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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Indonesian Fires Keep Burning

Air Date: Week of October 31, 1997

For months now, much of Southeast Asia has been blanketed by thick grey smoke from massive out-of-control forest fires. These fires were originally deliberately set by palm oil producers and others in the back country of Indonesia to clear the land. But with advent of the El Nino weather phenomenon, the monsoon rains that usually snuff out these seasonal fires have yet to come, and there is concern that coal seams and peat bogs may keep smoldering for years. More than 30 million people in 5 countries have been suffering from the effects of the smoke. People are dying as clinics and hospitals are crowded with people suffering from respiratory problems. A controversy is now raging in Indonesia over who is to blame for the disaster, and how to prevent it from happening again. Frank Koller of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation prepared our report from Jakarta.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. For months now, much of Southeast Asia has been blanketed by thick, grey smoke from out-of-control forest fires. These fires were deliberately set by palm-oil producers and other commercial interests in Indonesia. But with the advent of the El Niño weather phenomenon, much of the monsoon rains that usually snuff out these seasonal fires, have yet to come, and there is concern that coal seams and peat bogs may have ignited, and will keep smoldering for years. More than 30 million people in 5 countries have been exposed to the smoke. Mortality is up, and clinics and hospitals are treating thousands who are suffering from respiratory problems. A controversy is now raging in Indonesia over who is to blame for the disaster, and how to prevent it from happening again. Frank Koller of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation prepared our report.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native language]

KOLLER: On the steps of a wooden hut in the jungles of Kalimantan, an old woman talks about the smoke that's blanketed her village for the past 3 months.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native language]

KOLLER: "You're lucky today," she says. "Some days, it's so dark the chickens get confused, and go to sleep in the afternoon." The village of Dadahup lies 4 hours by speedboat up the Kapuas River. Its people are farmers, ekeing out a simple existence in the forest. Now, they're coughing, scratching their eyes, in smoke so thick, that Indonesian doctors say it's like puffing 5 packs of cigarettes every day.

[Crackling of fire]

KOLLER: At first, small farmers were blamed for setting fires. But this is much bigger than traditional clearing. Most Indonesians now understand lumber companies and palm tree plantation owners set most of the fires--the easiest and cheapest way to clear land for replanting. Some companies admit they bribe government officials, getting protection from Indonesia's political elite, close to President Soeharto. The companies themselves blame the extent of the fires on drought, and El Niño , the global climate system that's causing it. But blaming El Niño is a bad joke, says Wimar Witoelar, a management consultant in Jakarta, who understands how power and politics mix in Indonesia's capital.

WITOELAR: Like the guy in the gas station, who lights up a cigarette, and the gas station blows up, and he says, "This explosion is not my fault. It is the fault of the gas station, that has so much gas in the station." It's rather simple, because it's just one case of collusion that's been going on for years, between the plantation industry, and the people in power. I use that word instead of the name "government," because some of the ministers involved here are actually good guys.

KOLLER: Sarwono Kusuaatmadja, is Indonesia's Environment Minister, one of the good guys in this search for blame.

KUSUAATMADJA: Actually, I'm at peace with myself, because, I think everybody had fair and early warning. I did my very best to convince the Pracotakan government that things are getting to be very dangerous.

KOLLER: Sarwono warned this would be a bad year for fires, if the logging companies kept burning such huge swaths of forest. They ignored him, and Sarwono Kusuaatmadja says that's because, like too many other environment ministers around the world, he didn't have enough raw political power to stop them.

KUSUAATMADJA: Well, you have to realize that, my position in the Cabinet is that of an advisory role, and coordination role. So my only weapon is information. But I don't have direct authority. Direct authority rests with the Land Departments, and the provincial and local government.

[More fires crackling]

KOLLER: In September, President Soeharto pledged to punish the major forestry and plantation firms. Several had their logging licenses canceled. But a canceled logging license won't put a company out of business. And recently, satellites showed images of new fires in the jungles.

[Cheers and shouts of a large crowd]

KOLLER: It was all good sportsmanship in Jakarta a few weeks ago, as Indonesia hosted the annual Southeast Asian Games. National teams competed and went home smiling, with or without medals. But sports aside, Indonesia's neighbors aren't smiling. The smoke has nearly closed down Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and caused fatal collisions at sea. Asian diplomats aren't saying much in public, but Amy Hatfield, director of Indonesia's largest environmental group, says her country has hurt itself badly.

HATFIELD: I think it is so embarrassing to us. The international worlds know that this kind of fire is not the first time. It's a recurrent problem for Indonesia, and we have not been able to address this problem more systematically and effectively.

KOLLER: You travel a great deal, and you're very plugged in internationally. How angry are your neighbors?

HATFIELD: They are very angry. They are very angry, and the way that the governments of our neighbors have allowed their people to express their anger, and not oppress them, I think, is the Asian way of sending messages to us as a nation, that "Hey, guys, clean up your mess."

[Motor sounds]

KOLLER: Jalan Sudirman, Jakarta's "Golden Mile." Forty- and fifty-story buildings form a canyon of affluence in this city of 10 million, mostly very poor Indonesians. The alliance of political power and big business these buildings represent, has transformed Indonesia over the past generation. But many question whether that alliance has much time for the environment of this huge country, or its people. Yet Wimar Witoelar is optimistic that something good may eventually appear, out of the smoke.

[Purr of motors]

WITOELAR: Having this issue of forestry come to the foreground, with world attention, with very clear issues of mismanagement, at the same time that we have a financial crisis, is, I think, the best thing that's ever happened to the country in the last 20 years, in terms of impetus for reform and change. They all focus on the role of the uncurtailed abuse of power by the government, so I think that's good enough, because you cannot kill that fire without killing the abuse of power in the national center.

[Motor sounds and a honk]

KOLLER: For Living on Earth, I'm Frank Koller, in Jakarta.

 

 

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