Trouble in Indonesia

Fire-setting to clear land for palm oil
Fire-setting to clear land for palm oil

Phil Ward makes a not-very-subtle attempt to link the film “The Act of Killing” and the fires raging in Sumatra.

It might be thought that it is stretching the point a bit, to make a connection between a film about the death squads, who massacred up to a million alleged Indonesian Communists and members of the ethnic Chinese minority in 1965, and the latest round of forest fires in that country that polluted the atmosphere above large swathes of Singapore and Malaysia in late June.  But those who have seen the extraordinary film “The Act of Killing”, will have noted that the most chilling aspects of it are not the rather “detached” detailed accounts and re-enactments by the “star”, Anwar Congo, of his murder of up to 1,000 people: a detachment which seems designed to induce the same emotion in the viewer, despite the horror of those events 48 years ago.

Rather, it is the total insouciance with which these killers and leading politicians (including the Vice-President) and businessmen admit their current gangsterism, be it threatening a bloodbath against today’s communists, vote-buying, open extortion of protection money from ethnic Chinese shopkeepers, or bribing other politicians to secure land deals.  The medium for this activity, in Northern Sumatra in particular, is an allegedly 3.3 million-strong paramilitary organisation called Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth: the former term being a religious nationalist ideology, associated with the immediate post-1945 independence period).  In this region, PP was the leading force carrying out massacres in 1965-6, under the protection of the military, which effectively took power in October 1965.  They remained active in gangster activities, seemingly throughout the Surhato dictatorship, while their co-thinkers in other regions and islands of the archipelago went into relative quiescence.

From the film, it is obvious that PP is very active now, so it seems reasonable to draw a link between that organisation and at least some of the fire-setting to clear land for palm oil and paper pulp plantations in Northern Sumatra, which in early July continues to pollute the region.  In any case, there is a definite link to the kind of corruption that PP takes part in.  As the Financial Times highlighted on 23rd June, these annual events cannot be stamped out by the Indonesian government, due to “ingrained patronage politics”, i.e. corruption.  NGOs, such as Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute, place the responsibility at the door of large plantation companies, including ones based in Malaysia and Singapore, the countries currently most affected by the pollution.  This is basically a process of government-sanctioned land-grabbing, for which local enforcers are required.  The scale of the corruption is emphasised by the fact that burning forest is supposed to be illegal in Indonesia.

The fire next time

Using NASA data, the World Resources Institute (WRI) has shown that June’s fires in Sumatra were not the largest ever.  So far, they are not larger than the widely-reported Kalimantan/Sumatran fires of 1997, as the Western media have claimed.  The problem was just as serious in Sumatra in 2006, when there were three months in the summer, each with over 8,000 fires, a similar number to those in June this year.  What seems to determine the response is the wind direction: whether the pollution causes a diplomatic incident, or is confined to the Indonesian archipelago and therefore largely not of interest to the world’s media.  So the “record” the media were referring to was the pollution index in Singapore, which the WRI helpfully points out, is a global financial and media hub, not the actual number of fires, the area put to the torch, or the damage to the health and livelihoods of the people of Sumatra.

It will probably be several years before a full picture of the extent of forest destruction from this year’s fires emerges.  An indication of the problem can be gauged by a study produced in 2002, by a group based in Leicester University, of the 1997-8 fires.  In that period, which coincided with a dry El Nino weather event, up to ten million hectares of forest were destroyed.  Just to put that in context, that is over 40% of the total area of mainland Britain.

Burning peat from the fires is estimated to have added between 13% and 40% to the world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning for 1997.  The Leicester group points out the importance of peat lands as a store for carbon, so the fires turn an ecosystem that was taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into a major emitter.  By some estimates, as a result Indonesia is claimed to be the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter.  The fires also destroy biodiversity and prevent local inhabitants from living off the fruits of the forest.

It should be added that the soot from such fires itself exacerbates the greenhouse effect, because it is dark and therefore a very effective radiation absorber (think how hot black things – tarmac, for example – get in sunlight).  Furthermore, should it settle on the snows of the Himalaya, which can happen, the soot will accelerate ice melting, exposing darker rock underneath and having a long-term warming effect as a result.  For these reasons, if not its health effects, a world-wide programme of reduction of soot emissions is vitally important and would have an immediate impact on global warming.

The fact that the capitalist system can’t even provide basic stoves to replace wood fires for cooking – a health and pollution hazard that has been highlighted by some NGOs for over thirty years, is a condemnation of the sick priorities of the system.

The role of the EU

Not only do the fires in Indonesia show the corruption in the country, they illustrate the ecological irrationality of the EU decree that 10% of all motor fuels should be biofuel by 2020.  Palm oil is used to make biodiesel.  This, along with increasing uses of palm oil for cooking in South and South-East Asia, and as a replacement for trans fats in processed foods and margarines, has led to a leap in demand for the crop, which is by far the highest yielding in oil per hectare.

(Palm oil use in food is questionable in any case.  The oil contains more saturated fat than either beef fat or lard, although it is not known if animal and plant sources are equivalent in their effects in promoting heart disease).

Production in Indonesia grew from practically nothing in the 1960’s to 6 million tonnes by the time of the fires in 1997 and is now 20 million tonnes.  World production has gone up nearly 2 ½ times in the last ten years and the EU now uses about 8 million tonnes of biodiesel a year, about 70% of the world total.  (The biofuel additive to petrol is usually alcohol from sugar beet or sugar cane).

As might be expected, palm oil biodiesel has been shown to be more harmful as a greenhouse gas emitter than most crude oil sources, when the full production cycle is considered.  Indeed, a European Commission study, leaked and reported in the Guardian in January 2102, showed that palm oil was just 2% “better” than tar sand oil and had nearly 20% higher emissions than conventional crude.  Almost all the biodiesel sources did not meet the EU requirement of 35% lower emissions than conventional sources.

So the EU’s directive is an important driver in the destruction of ecosystems and the livelihoods of indigenous people in Indonesia.  As an effort to reduce emissions from motor transport, it is counterproductive.   Other relatively minor efforts could cut emissions significantly, if the governments were serious about the issue.  Examples include government promotion of journey-sharing, particularly for commuting, speed limiters on cars, incentives for cycling and provision of free public transport.  The fact that these measures are not considered shows the extent to which the EU is in hock to the motor industry.

Although there have been industry /NGO attempts to make palm oil production more “sustainable”, they have been faltering and recently both Indonesian and Malaysian producers have distanced themselves from these efforts.  As well as destroying rainforest and peat lands, the crop is produced by outmoded methods that further damage biodiversity and the health of farmworkers: like all plantation monocultures, there is a high dependence on agrochemical inputs.

It is estimated that over 3 million people are directly employed by the palm oil industry in Indonesia, and they will be the backbone of any struggle to stop the current destruction.  Ecological justice, if it is to be achieved, would require that production is under the control of the local workers and the communities and that the continued viability of the land is a central consideration.


  1. This is not a stretch at all – as Marzuki says in the film, Pancasila Youth is involved with illegal logging, and of course the thugs that light forest fires on behalf of plantation companies. Wonderful article.

    • Thank you very much for your positive comment! For those who don’t know, Joshua directed “The Act of Killing”.


    Battersea Against Biofuels is holding a PUBLIC MEETING to inform ourselves and strengthen the campaign against plans for a bio-oil (palm oil) CHP plant to heat and light the new development on the Power Station site.

    It will be at 7.30pm on Wednesday 10 July in the Garden Room at the Bread and Roses Pub, 68 Clapham Manor Street, SW4 6DZ map (equidistant from Clapham High St overground, Clapham North Tube and Clapham Common Tube)

    Battersea Against Biofuels now has a facebook page and an events page for the PUBLIC MEETING Please follow these and invite lots of friends.

    We have some great speakers and there will be time for questions and discussion about how we can build the campaign and stop these plans.

    Speakers include:
    Duncan Law, Biofuelwatch and Battersea Against Biofuels who will update on the current plans at the Power Station site and the campaign so far.

    Helen Buckland, director of Orangutans SOS who will show what the expanding market for palm oil for fuel is doing to the planet’s precious rainforests, biodiversity and habitats, including the Orangutan’s.

    Kenneth Richter, biofuel campaigner for Friends of the Earth who will speak about the climate impacts of palm oil, and the human rights record of Sime Darby, owner of Battersea Power Station and the worlds largest palm oil producer.

    Simon Birkett, founder director of Clean Air in London who will look at air quality impacts this new source of diesel pollution in the heart of a very polluted area.

    We want to make strong representations to the developers that they should not go ahead with these plans and to Wandsworth that they could not possibly give planning permission in the light of air quality issues and strong resident opposition. A similar biofuel project in Ealing in 2010 was unanimously refused local planning permission and refused at appeal by the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State on air quality grounds. A passionate local campaign had educated planning committee members on the issues.

    • This meeting could not be more timely. The EU is to vote tomorrow – the same day as the meeting in Battersea – on whether to stick to its targets for biofuel of 10% in transport by 2020, or instead to keep it at 5% “to allow the industry to recoup its investment”. This is on the basis of the research mentioned in the article above and other, later studies. It has target for RE in electricity generation, which the proposed power station would “contribute” to. It may hapen, but it is utterly inconsistent drop the biofuel target for transport on grounds of their excessive CO2 emissions and then burn the same oils in power stations!

  3. Until watching this film I’d had no idea how openly corrupt and dysfunctional Indonesia is. The narrative thread is Anwar Congo’s own project to make a film about the murder of over two million people. In one scene he’s interviewed about it on national TV and, not just does he glory in his own killings in front of an audience of his militia, the presenter concludes the interview by saying that it’s God’s work to kill communists. This was on national TV.

    In other astonishing scenes you see gangsters extorting money from market holders, gangster politicians bribing voters and a landowner explaining that it’s easier to get land by using thugs to drive people away. They are all very open about it and the enthusiastic support press and politicians give them means they’ve got no reason to be concerned.

    The only analogy that comes to mind is one in which the Nazis had won the war and the people responsible for the Holocaust were feted on light entertainment shows as national heroes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.