Spectacular cynicism: Seeing Indonesia’s fire and haze from the margins

Guest post by Zachary Anderson, University of Toronto

Recently Indonesia was hit by massive forest fires, which were largely ignored by the Western media, despite their severe scale and impact. I feel moved to respond to George Monbiot’s recent opinion piece in the Guardian about the disaster, as well as comments on social media asking in astonishment why no one (in North America and Europe) has heard about it.

Forest fire

Other commentators have called these fires ‘the biggest man-made environmental disaster of the 21st century’, and the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has referred to the fires and haze as a ‘crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions’. The smoke and haze can be seen from outer space, so why is this issue so hard to see outside of Southeast Asia – even as the world prepares to discuss carbon emissions at the COP21 conference in Paris?

On the knife edge

Sitting in rural East Kalimantan as I complete my doctoral fieldwork I am often struck by an interesting sense of cognitive dissonance. Though I’m ‘far away’ from everything that is usually deemed newsworthy, at the same time I think I’m at ground zero of the most important news stories that have ever existed. I feel like I’m on the knife-edge of climate change and environmental destruction – all those things we environmentalists in the Global North discuss and speculate about are already part of daily life here.

It’s not just the fires. All the fish in one of the biggest rivers near me just died (even the hardy catfish) because of a cyanobacteria bloom that has turned the river bright green and lowered the pH to well below 4. No one knows exactly why it’s happened, but there is speculation that runoff from the oil palm plantations along the river may have contributed. Even when the fish were still alive they were so full of lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals that eating them was a matter of self harm. Not to mention the exhaust filling the air when the smoke isn’t.

The international media may be selectively blind to disasters happening in South East Asia, but the attention span of the media here is also short.

We’ve had about two weeks with enough rain to push the fires back and suddenly they’re not being talked about; now it’s back to discussions about whatever politician is having a fight with his party or the tension between the National Corruption Eradication Commission and the National Police.

Three weeks ago I had to drive 16 hours from here to the provincial capital because the airport was closed due to the smoke and was literally passing walls of flames on the sides of the road. And I’m not anywhere near the worst affected areas. But now the story, in the media at least, has moved on.

Cynicism and the climate

In all honesty, I think we’ll have more moments like this going forward – moments of such cynicism that we’ll all try to pretend like nothing is going on. As Monbiot’s article notes, the fires have already produced more emissions than the annual emissions of Germany and Japan, and more daily emissions than the US. The Indonesian Oil Palm Smallholders Union is already claiming that the fires will happen again next year, because of the government’s ineffective response, and a lack of meaningful policy change.

What does this mean for Indonesia, a country that has been receiving millions of dollars in funding for REDD+ and other emission reduction programs (more than a billion if you count the USD$1 Billion pledge from Norway)? Indonesia has already surpassed Russia to become the world’s 4th largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China, the US, and India. But of course all these numbers are estimates, and as such, leave plenty of room for uncertainty and skepticism, allowing us to move on.

I’m wondering what this will do for Indonesia’s emissions curve and deforestation rate calculations (on which their INDC and performance-based payments like REDD+ are based). Will we all just pretend like this year was an anomaly rather than trying to root out the structural causes of these fires (and of course deforestation in Indonesia more broadly)? I hate to be a pessimist, but I think that’s exactly what will be happen. How are we to move forward otherwise?

The Paris climate talks are just under a week away. Will everyone stop everything and discuss this? Or will delegates pretend like this just another in a long list of problems and continue debating an – at best – ‘too little too late’ agreement? You can probably guess what I think.

Palm oil politics

While the fires raged, the Government of Indonesia pushed back against some of the biggest oil palm companies who had formed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), a voluntary zero-deforestation commitment. The Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry’s director general of planning, San Afri Awang, claimed that this pledge was illegal and overstepped Indonesian sovereignty, while endangering the economic engine of rural development.

Now, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia have signed a memorandum of understanding to form a new Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC) (like the palm oil version of OPEC), which will effectively control around 85% of the world’s oil palm production, and can operate without worrying about the voluntary standards that have emerged from organizations and agreements like IPOP, or the RSPO. Because people want (need?) palm oil, and the truth is most consumers (industrial and retail) are unaware, don’t care, or are willing to look the other way.

I can’t think of the right words to describe this all but it seems like spectacular cynicism, or cynicism in the face of spectacle.

Unusually in the Western media, the Guardian has already made the editorial choice to begin tracing these longer, more difficult to follow, less sexy climate stories, and while they’re great, will they force governments or consumers to take action? I’m not sure if better and more thorough media coverage will force action on this (or other climate related) issue(s).

In another recent blog post, Erik Meijaard discusses the proliferation of ‘paper concepts’ like protected areas and conservation laws in Indonesia as ‘pacifiers’, which give the illusion that everything is under control and that the government has done its best to protect Indonesia’s forests, while in reality Indonesia’s rising deforestation rates and rampant fires show us that in fact nothing is under control. Sadly, ‘pacifier’ might be an apt description for any international climate agreement likely to come out of the Paris talks at this point. Lulling us into thinking that those at the bargaining tables are doing something so we can keep looking the other way.


Zachary Anderson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto, and an affiliate of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Critical Development Studies. He is currently conducting doctoral fieldwork in Indonesia. This blogpost is a personal view of the author.

Image: Damage of the forest fire in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, September 2011, by Rini Sulaiman/ Norwegian Embassy for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) / Flickr / creative commons (by-nc-nd 2.0)

This article is part of our coverage of the COP21 climate change conference.

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