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Indonesia: Fighting forest fires
“…the fires in Indonesia from this year caused an equivalent of CO2 comparable to more than ten times the yearly fossil fuel emissions from the Netherlands… 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.”
Death, respiratory illnesses, wildlife destruction and evacuations continue as fires rage in the forests and peat lands of Indonesia. There have been more than 100,000 fires deliberately lit to clear land for palm oil and paper products. The country is witnessing the worst environmental disaster since the BP gulf oil spill. The crisis is so bad that Friends of the Earth Indonesia/WALHI is distributing facemasks and health checks and evacuating vulnerable groups, such as infants, pregnant women and the elderly, to safety.
Most of the fires originate in or near pulp or palm oil plantations, many of which are suppliers to big multinational companies which purchase and produce paper and palm oil for the supply chains of international food companies.
What are the causes of the fires?
It is clear that the areas where the fires are most severe overlaps with the regions where the oil palm expansion took place in 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 peat land 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% cheaper than clearing the land.
Would you say that oilpalm plantations cause the fires?
Our research shows that half of the hotspots are inside the permits of companies. This does not mean that the companies started the fire, but by law the company is also 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.
Which companies are responsible for the forest and peat fires?
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 and pulp and paper companies are involved. Wilmar is one of the biggest palm oil traders worldwide. The fires are found despite their no burning, no deforestation and no peat policy.
Which financiers are involved?
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.]
How much palm oil enters the Rotterdam harbour? How much in Euros?
Eighty per cent of the palm oil entering the EU is coming through the Rotterdam harbour. Palm oil is used in food, shampoo, but also in biofuels. Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer in the world, from the 31 million tons produced per year, 20 million tons are exported. 6.8 million tonnes are exported to the EU 27 (data from 2014).
The export of palm oil from Indonesia in 2014 amounts to 21 billion USD. About 19 billion euro. At the same time the costs of the forest fires are now estimated at 14 billion dollars (12.8 billion euro) and will continue to grow.
What is the climate impact of the fire?
Up to today the fires in Indonesia from this year caused an equivalent of CO2 comparable to more then ten times the yearly fossil fuel emissions from the Netherlands. (http://www.globalfiredata.org/updates.html 1.75 billion metric ton of CO2 equivalents, http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=CO2ts1990-2013 161854.94 kton CO2 in 2013 = 10,8x)
And other impacts?
In terms of health, 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 died, of which most are babies, since the fires began in September. This number keeps increasing as the fires continue.
For Biodiversity, large areas of peat and forest land are lost to the fire. This has a serious impact on biodiversity, for example the habitat 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 the peat land areas from development of new plantations.
In terms of the economy and livelihoods, the export of palm oil from Indonesia in 2014 amounts to 21 billion US dollars, about 19 billion euro. At the same time the costs of the forest fires are now estimated at 14 billion dollars (12.8 billion euro) 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.
What does WALHI do?
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 also the role of local governments is followed and corruption and when permit are handed out in violation of the peat moratorium they will be brought to court / anti-corruption committee as well. The local groups of WALHI set up evacuation centres to give vulnerable people a safe place to recover from the health impact of the haze.
And what do you want?
First, the Indonesian government needs to review the permits given to companies, because a lot goes wrong in social conflict, corruption and overlay with, for example, national parks. 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 companies that neglected/omitted to fight the fire 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.