Citizen Action Monitor

Indonesia ablaze — the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century, ignored by media

This ‘ecopalypse’ is currently producing more CO2 than the US economy.

No 1496 Posted by fw, October 31, 2015

George Monbiot

George Monbiot

“A great tract of the Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century – so far.”George Monbiot

For a visual translation of Monbiot’s print portrayal, watch this 4:30-minute embedded video of the great conflagration —

Indonesia on Fire by Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), October 29, 2015 — In Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, the peat areas are burning and emitting a toxic smoke causing untold damage to the environment, wildlife and human health. Most of the fires in Central Kalimantan are blazing in former peatland forests, which have been drained, cleared and burned for oil palm and agriculture, large and small. The dried-out peat ignites easily, burns underground and creeps under the surface.

To read Monbiot’s account of Indonesia ablaze, including the media’s indifference, the decades of political corruption and the fragmentation of forests by the timber and farming companies that have caused these disasters, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is a repost with added subheadings.

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Nothing to See Here by George Monbiot, monbiot.com, October 30, 2015

Indonesia blotted out by smoke — and an indifferent media

In the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century (so far), Indonesia has been blotted out by smoke. And the media.

I’ve often wondered how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work.

What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.

This is what hell looks like

A great tract of the Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century – so far.

Meanwhile the media focuses on fashion, celebrities, and health risks from eating sausages

And the media? It’s talking about the dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the James Bond premiere, Donald Trump’s idiocy du jour and who got eliminated from the Halloween episode of Dancing with the Stars. The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?

What I’m discussing is a barbeque on a different scale. Fire is raging across the 5000-kilometre length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page.

Three weeks of Indonesia’s inferno emits more CO2 than Germany’s annual emissions

It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. In three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

Worse yet, fires are destroying treasures and threatened animal species

But that doesn’t really capture it. This catastrophe cannot be measured only in parts per million. The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis. Orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.

West Papua wonderland reduced to ashes

One of the burning islands is West Papua, a nation that has been illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1963. I spent six months there when I was 24, investigating some of the factors that have led to the current disaster. At the time, it was a wonderland, rich with endemic species in every swamp and valley. Who knows how many of those have vanished in the past few weeks? This week I have pored and wept over photos of places I loved, that have now been reduced to ash.

Current conflagration worse than 1997 disaster when air pollution wiped out 15,000 children

Nor do the greenhouse gas emissions capture the impact on the people of these lands. After the last great conflagration, in 1997, there was a missing cohort in Indonesia of 15,000 children under the age of three, attributed to air pollution. This, it seems, is worse. The surgical masks being distributed across the nation will do almost nothing to protect those living in a sunless smog. Members of parliament in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have had to wear face masks during debates. The chamber is so foggy that they must have difficulty recognizing each other.

The very land is afire

It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases like ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.

Decades of timber and farming companies fragmenting forests is causing these disasters

Why is this happening? Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil. The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe.

Indonesia – a nation where fascism and corruption flourish

The current president, Joko Widodo, is – or wants to be – a democrat. But he presides over a nation in which fascism and corruption flourish. As Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing shows, leaders of the death squads that helped murder around a million people during Suharto’s terror in the 1960s, with the approval of the West, have since prospered through other forms of organized crime, including illegal deforestation.

Nation’s 3-million strong paramilitary mass killers greeted as heroes

They are supported by a paramilitary organization with three million members, called Pancasila Youth. With its orange camo-print uniforms, scarlet berets, sentimental gatherings and schmaltzy music, it looks like a fascist militia as imagined by JG Ballard. There has been no truth, no reconciliation; the mass killers are still greeted as heroes and feted on television. In some places, especially West Papua, the political murders continue.

“Those who commit crimes against humanity don’t hesitate to commit crimes against nature”

Those who commit crimes against humanity don’t hesitate to commit crimes against nature. Though Joko Widodo seems to want to stop the burning, his reach is limited. His government’s policies are contradictory: among them are new subsidies for palm oil production that make further burning almost inevitable. Some plantation companies, prompted by their customers, have promised to stop destroying the rainforest. Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development. That smoke blotting out the nation has already cost it some $30 billion? That, apparently, is development.

Here’s what you can do – Boycott Starbucks, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Unilever that use palm oil

Our leverage is weak, but there are some things we can do. Some companies using palm oil have made visible efforts to reform their supply chains; but others seem to move slowly and opaquely. Starbucks, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Unilever are examples. Don’t buy their products until they change.

In meeting with Indonesia’s president Widodo, Obama didn’t raise the ecopalypse

On Monday, Widodo was in Washington, meeting Barack Obama. Obama, the official communiqué recorded, “welcomed President Widodo’s recent policy actions to combat and prevent forest fires”. The ecopalypse taking place as they conferred, that makes a mockery of these commitments, wasn’t mentioned.

“Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. And the media ignores them because…”

Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. And the media ignores them because … well there’s a question with a thousand answers, many of which involve power. But one reason is the complete failure of perspective in a deskilled industry dominated by corporate press releases, photo ops and fashion shoots, where everyone seems to be waiting for everyone else to take a lead. The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening.

At Paris climate summit, “talks will be removed to a realm in which we have no moral contact”

At the climate summit in Paris in December, the media, trapped within the intergovernmental bubble of abstract diplomacy and manufactured drama, will cover the negotiations almost without reference to what is happening elsewhere. The talks will be removed to a realm with which we have no moral contact. And, when the circus moves on, the silence will resume. Is there any other industry that serves its customers so badly?

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