Chinese and Indian palm oil consumers must share blame for the choking land-clearing fires in Indonesia

Venkatachalam Anbumozhi says global demand for palm oil is a key reason for burning peatland in Indonesia, and major importers, including China, should take responsibility for solving the problem

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 4:43pm

At the Paris climate summit this month, representatives of 195 nations reached a historic agreement committing nearly every country on earth to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, to stem the tide of climate change.

China has committed to the most drastic cuts, reducing emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60-65 per cent by 2030. Indonesia aims to mitigate emissions by 29 per cent. In large part, the reductions will result from better management of Indonesia’s peatlands, whose burning is choking Sumatra, Borneo, Malaysia and Singapore in haze. Most blazes are man-made, for the purpose of clearing ground to sow palm oil, Indonesia’s US$18 billion industry.

The question is how Indonesia can wean itself from its dependency on palm production when no other industry is positioned to replace it

While the Paris accord makes provisions for green technology transitions, it does not – and perhaps could not – wean countries off existing economic dependencies. Indonesia, in other words, is unlikely to curb the palm cash crop as long as China, India and the West continue to import it in vast quantities.

It’s impossible to doubt the health hazards of peat-fire pollution, floating over Sumatra, and across Malaysia and Singapore. Presently, more than half a million people in Southeast Asia have been diagnosed with respiratory illnesses due to the smog; and in Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, Indonesian authorities have reported “very dangerous” levels of particulate matter, with visibility under 30 meters in 350 locations. The air of Beijing and New Delhi is clean by comparison.

READ MORE: Experts fear emissions from Indonesian fires could have ripple effect on atmosphere of the entire planet

From 2000 to 2010, Indonesia saw its forests diminish by 500,000 hectares each year; 41 per cent of Indonesia’s remaining forest land is considered degraded.

Recent years have seen progress, however. In 2010, the Norwegian and Indonesian governments signed an agreement whereby the latter instituted a two-year moratorium – subsequently extended – on permits to log or set up palm oil plantations in government-managed forest and peatlands. As part of this agreement, Norway helped to build institutional capacity for improved forest management and, if deforestation rates decreased, Indonesia would receive up to US$1 billion.

READ MORE: Indonesia accepts international help to combat fires

Seeming to honour Norway’s pact, and more recently the values of the Paris summit, the Indonesian government has opened 244 cases against illegal peat burning; is investigating at least 16 palm oil companies for their involvement; and extended its moratorium on licensing of peatland areas. In October, President Joko Widodo cut short his trip to the White House to deal with the raging fires, signalling his commitment to solving the problem. The Paris talks underlined it.

Yet his administration has been accused of complicity in the peat-for-palm arson. By the time the Norwegian moratorium took effect in 2011, it contained numerous exemptions as a result of business lobbying. Projects whose applications were received prior to the presidential instruction could still proceed, as could projects related to mining.

And, in 2013, when answering the question of how, exactly, land previously destroyed by slash-and-burn industries could be used, the Indonesian government proposed using 6 million hectares of degraded land for palm oil expansion. This would bring the country closer to its national target of doubling palm oil production by 2020 without additional deforestation.

Recently, Indonesian government officials have emphasised the harm that further regulating palm oil wreaks upon small stakeholders and corporations.

Demand for palm oil is global. The pressures exerted to reduce demand must be global as well

Meanwhile, the international community laments, criticises, and asks how Indonesia can abide the destruction of its own lands.

But the question isn’t why Indonesia continues to unknowingly back peat burning, in spite of its grievous human and environmental toll. The question is how Indonesia can wean itself from its dependency on palm production when no other industry is positioned to replace it.

Probably it can’t – not by itself at least. Demand for palm oil is global. The pressures exerted to reduce demand must be global as well. Bizarrely, India, China and the EU – the world’s biggest palm oil importers – and Egypt, the US and Japan, which import vast quantities, have eluded global accountability. Indonesia, meanwhile, is continually expected to foot the majority of compliance costs for transnational haze damages and has asked for US$3.6 billion in outside funding to restore its peatlands.

In the face of their own increasing demand for palm oil, and dire environmental, economic and social circumstances, China and India have been forced to limit their expansion of agriculture. As a result, they are relying more upon imports, and, by extension, exporting their deforestation “needs”.

READ MORE: Indonesia needs help from neighbours and better law enforcement to tackle choking forest fires

READ MORE: Desperation drives Indonesian residents from epicentre of Southeast Asia’s haze crisis

Indeed, China plans to increase official forest cover to 23 per cent by 2020. A major component of this increase will be plantations that fulfil the growing demands of China’s economy. But given the central government’s commitment to reversing deforestation, it is unlikely that domestic supply will keep pace with domestic demand. It is likely that the recent “export” of China’s deforestation problems to its neighbours, including Indonesia, will escalate.

So while the twin issues of deforestation and haze wrought by peat fires and palm planting continue to be the subject of legislation and numerous regulations in Indonesia, these have failed, not just because of the alleged rapacity of local authorities.

They have failed because demand for palm oil continues to intensify abroad, adding incentive to burn, and because poor air quality in Singapore lies outside the political compass of an Indonesian politician representing impoverished regions where there are many pressures for land clearing, not all of them home-grown.

The dangers of deforestation cannot be overstated. But Indonesia’s culpability can. Sanctimony which condemns the “small stakeholders” of Sumatra and Kalimantan should consider the outside forces encouraging the burning.

Following the historic Paris accord – and in the lead-up to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s ratification of the accord, during which it would be tentatively put into action – the pall of smoke spreading across Southeast Asia, towards China and India, has perhaps assumed a symbolic meaning as well: complicity.

Dr Venkatachalam Anbumozhi is a senior energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia, Indonesia