Over the last few weeks and months, I have followed the spread of the haze from the fires in Sumatra, which have inundated Singapore and peninsular Malaysia, with a mixture of both sadness and deja vu.
I lived in Indonesian Borneo during the infamous fires of the late 1990s, when the sky was not visible for months, flights were canceled, and people stayed inside if at all possible. The air — even in the middle of the city — smelled like a bonfire.
Then, like now, the fires were primarily caused by the burning of forests and peat swamps for palm oil plantations. In order to grow palm oil on the often infertile and acidic soil in the tropics, palm oil growers must drain and burn the soil. When the weather is dry, and when the forest is degraded, it is easy for the fires to spread past the intended burn area and consume otherwise intact forests. This is the reason that Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouses gases in the world, after the USA and China. Over 75 percent of Indonesia’s emissions come from deforestation.
Research by the World Resources Institute has shown that half of the fires occur in areas that have been set aside for pulp and paper and palm oil plantations. Despite commitments made by both the companies (many of whom have a “no burn” policy on paper) and the government (who have deemed most burning to be illegal), Indonesia’s lax enforcement policy makes it easy for companies to do what they have always done and prepare land by burning.
Of course, the problem is far more insidious than that. Long term selective logging has meant that many of the remaining forests in Sumatra are much dryer and burn more readily. One of the effects of climate change has been a change in weather patterns that has meant that forests are less healthy and, again, more flammable.
One of the most tragic parts of this disaster has been the (predictable) blame game around who is responsible. The government blames the small farmers, and (sometimes) the companies. The companies blame the small farmers. The small farmers, who generally very poor, land-based communities with no access to the mainstream media, just get to breathe in the smoke.
The fact is that small farmers do use swidden agriculture, and have used swidden agriculture for generations. In the past, there was enough forest that they could leave used farm land to fallow for up to 20 years, rebuilding the soil fertility and having a limited impact on the environment. As the total amount of forest has decreased, rotation cycles had to be shortened, and the impact on the remaining forest was intensified. Coupled with changes to the forest from selective logging and climate change (as mentioned above), fires set by small farmers have had a larger impact on overall forest burning than they have in the past.
The fact is the only real solution lies in a system-wide change. Until the Indonesian government enforces the laws (don’t hold your breath… although you may need to with all the smoke) companies will continue to use the cheapest and most expedient ways to prepare land for lucrative palm oil plantations. Land-based communities have no option other than to plant subsistence crops whereever they are able to plant. Until they are guaranteed rights to land — enough land to make small-scale swidden agriculture sustainable — communities will continue to use whatever land is available for their farms and will disregard the now impossible practices that made swidden farming sustainable.
Now is an incredible opportunity for action. Wealthy communities in Singapore and Malaysia are feeling firsthand the impact of destruction for palm oil plantation. Tourists and business people from around the world are breathing in the smoke of Indonesia’s forests. It’s time for people around the world to come together and demand that the Indonesian government enforce their laws, and that communities are given legal rights to their land. Until that happens, all we can expect is more summers of smoke.