Imagine you live on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, a city in the Kalimantan province of Indonesia. As you walk to work, you see people quickly scurrying on the road, with smog masks covering their face. You did not have access to a mask due to a shortage, and are therefore subjects to the hazardous fumes that circulate throughout the air.
This was the reality for a person living in central Kalimantan in 2015. Also known as the worlds worst humanitarian and ecological disaster is human history.
South Sumatra, Indonesia
Indonesia is currently the largest producer and exporter of Palm Oil, worldwide. The products high yield and the ease at which it grown in Indonesia’s peat lands makes it a valuable resource. However, the environmental results are detrimental.
“The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe” (Monbiot.)
With each hectare of peat land cleared, 3,0750-5,400 tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. However, with the large subsidies that the government provides to palm oil producers, there is little incentive to stop production.
When these areas are slashed and burned to make way for new crops to be planted, the highly flammable peat land, mixed with dry climate conditions have resulted in vast forest fires in the region.
“It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smolder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide” (Monbiot.)
This event had been called a “crime against humanity”, however, it has also resulted in a large loss of biodiversity in the region. Among the animals affected are orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran tiger, most of which were labeled endangered prior to this ecological disaster.
So enough with the facts. The idea that I really want to explore is the fact that nobody really knew, or cared about this event. Indonesia reached out to other nations for help and was met by closed doors.
This nation is the 4th most populated country in the world, with a population of 250 million and is also one of the most biodiversity rich places on the planet.
While this environmental catastrophe was occurring, the media was discussing McDonalds new “mcPick 2” deal, Donald Trumps recent racist remarks, and dress that may have been black or may have been blue.
“The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening” (Monbiot).
So after reading this, you may be wondering, who is to blame and what can we do? Well, this isn’t a simple answer. Some blame the Indonesian government for allowing these agricultural practices in such a fragile environment. Some blame the media for glossing over the story. While others blame the large companies who use palm oil in their products–Pepsi, Starbucks ect. Yes, you can choose to not purchase products with Palm Oil, but we are also dealing with a large export of a country with a fragile economic system. By using products with sustainably produced Palm Oil, you could help promote the sustainable production of this product, while also supporting this nations economy. Indonesians have a very strong sense of nationalism, and shaming this nation for these crimes will probably do more harm than good.
The most effective thing we can do it reach out, and offer our help. Some countries with a large interest in the environment have been known to help out countries in the midst of ecological disasters. For example, Norway payed Brazil billions of dollars for their efforts in conservation. This kind of idea could incentivize the Indonesian government to take action.
These fires, have since been tamed, but this doesn’t not mean the land or people have healed. There have been 100,000 premature deaths reported due to air quality. Ecological disasters like this have been effecting the citizens and the biodiversity of nations all around the world. However, little action is ever taken and most people forget about it a few days after they’ve scrolled past it in their facebook news feed. Let us not forget this grave ecological and humanitarian disaster, and hope they the next time something like this happens, we will respond with support and understanding to solve these issues that effect the entire globe.