Sound of an approaching motor bike broke a long reflection on the devastation caused by fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peatlands in recent years producing suffocating smoke haze across the region. Joining an expedition to explore the causes of the smoke haze was sure to provoke such thoughts. Here on Tebing Tinggi Island, close to Riau Province’s Kampar Peninsula had also drifted to the fire regime in my own country. In my lifetime now a few months shy of three score years and ten the great warming was undeniable. Fire was increasing in incidence and I could only conclude that we were no longer theorising about global warming but dealing directly with it’s consequences.
Our small group parted opening the way as a solitary man on a Honda step-through moved between us. This was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.
“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.
“He’s from the forest. His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.
“None, at all?”
“No, they believe in forest spirits.”
“Where is he going?”
“Into the forest. His people live there.”
Endangering the primal spirits of the land
The archipelago’s first people understand God as a host of presences in the forests, on the mountains, everywhere throughout Nusantara. Mountains, had the most important status in the spiritual understandings. Early religion frequently involved the worship of mountain deities and a belief that ancestors also dwelt in the mountains. [i]
Forests too were important affording access to a realm crowded with forest spirits.This man no doubt followed such a primal path. In Riau, his people once called themselves Batin. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.
Habitat loss and endangered species were well documented, tigers and orang utan the iconic faces of this process. Yet, El Nino’s smoke haze, plaguing Singapore and Indonesia’s cities masked another tragedy the threat to Riau’s Indigenous people. Sadness and disquiet filled me.
Most of the communities with customary territories on the southern side of the Peninsula were relocated to the northern side of the Kampar river. This isn’t a recent phenomenon in Indonesia. I saw it being applied back in 1988 when visiting the Mentawai Islands. Then people were taken from their Uma on the dendritic branches of rivers and concentrated in camps near the main branches. The same process is evident in Kalimantan.
Despite this enforced relocation Indigenous people, all over Indonesia, still go back to their territories where they farm, hunt, fish, gather herbs, fruits and resins or do a little cash cropping.
Many Indigenous people, in the Riau area will refer to themselves as Melayu at first asking but their roots lie far back in prehistoric times. In historic times they have been ruled by coastal Hindu, Buddhist and Malay kingdoms. Often referred to as Siak by the ruling kingdoms, they adopted the generic name Batin for themselves. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream, just as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.
Just as I began to write this piece I received an email from Emmanuela Shinta. It linked to a new book
HerStory3: Championing Community Land Rights and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Asia, published by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact.
Click on the cover to download your copy.
The notes on the publication read
“This book, as a compilation of indigenous women’s “her stories”, is a reflection of the conditions and struggles on the ground of indigenous women. They are the stories of Katima, Jannie, Endena, and 13 other indigenous women who are extraordinary women in their own right. They are in the hearts and minds of other women and villagers because of their suffering, struggles, sacrifices, commitments, dedication and lifetime achievements in advancing the dignity of women and indigenous peoples.
This is now the third volume of her stories to be produced by AIPP to amplify the voices and struggles on indigenous women across Asia. This year we are focussing on indigenous women as land rights defenders, in line with the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights.”
[i] Kempers, B. A. J. Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese archaeology and guide to the monuments. Periplus Editions. Singapore. 1991. pp. 4.
Travelling through East Kalimantan in 1987 the extent of forest clearance was immediately apparent. On the road from Balikpapan to Tenggarong most of the clear-felled areas I passed were tantamount to a tinderbox waiting for a firestorm.
Fire in logged areas was a regular occurrence in East Kalimantan and ten years after this visit, the inevitable happened. The El Nino of 1997-98 exacerbated yet another outbreak that went on to burn 25% of the province.
The El Nino of 2015-16
In June the Straits Times reported that peatland fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra that blanketed South-east Asia in thick haze last year released the greatest amount of climate-changing carbon since record blazes in 1997, producing emissions higher than in the whole of the European Union.
The Nature Climate Change 4 notes that El Niño events are a prominent feature of climate variability with global climatic impacts. The 1997/98 episode, often referred to as ‘the climate event of the twentieth century’1, 2, and the 1982/83 extreme El Niño3, featured a pronounced eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool and development of atmospheric convection, and hence a huge rainfall increase, in the usually cold and dry equatorial eastern Pacific. Such a massive reorganization of atmospheric convection, which we define as an extreme El Niño, severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems4, 5, agriculture6, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide3, 7, 8, 9
Recent research on the 2015 fires reported in the Straits Times concluded that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted in the region last year, with 97 per cent originating from forest fires in Indonesia.
The results showed that regional carbon dioxide emissions from the fires were 11.3 million tonnes per day in September and October 2015, more than the 28-nation EU’s daily emissions of 8.9 million tonnes during the same period.
The researchers also said the emissions were worse than during the 1997 fires, considered the worst on record.
At that time, there was an even longer drought and widespread burning due to a stronger El Nino.
Research suggests 100,000 premature deaths
Harvard and Columbia University researchers have used air pollution readings to calculate exposure to the toxic smoke haze that drifted across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, last year. Their research suggests 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, arising from this event.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield quotes the report from the Environmental Research Letters journal on September 19 as estimating “. . . that haze in 2015 resulted in 100,300 excess deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore,” says the report, which was published in. This was largely the result of exposure the dangerous particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5). The report states:
A combination of El Niño and pIOD conditions in July–October 2015 led to dry conditions that exacerbated agricultural and land clearing fires in southern Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting dense haze persisted across much of Equatorial Asia for weeks, imposing adverse public health impacts on populations in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Using the adjoint of the GEOS-Chem global chemistry model together with health response functions, we estimate ~60 μg m−3 of population-weighted smoke PM2.5 exposure and 100 300 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore due to extreme haze in 2015. These values are more than double the 25 μg m−3 of smoke PM2.5 and 37 600 premature deaths that we estimate for a similar haze event in the region in 2006. The approximate doubling of regional smoke exposure in 2015 compared to 2006 is consistent with observations of haze from both OMI AI and MODIS AOD during the two events.
Conditions are becoming worse with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) potentiating factors.
The report notes that, “Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from a number of ailments including stroke and respiratory illnesses,” one of the researchers from Harvard University, Dr Shannon Koplitz, told Fairfax Media.
Indonesians were the worst affected with an estimated 91,600 excess deaths.
Last year Indonesia’s National Disaster management Agency (BNPB) acknowledged the severity of the situation reporting that hat 43 million Indonesians were affected by the smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone with 503,874 reported Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI).
Topsfield reports Sutopo Purwo Nugroho from BNPB as claiming “There is nothing like that (91,000 premature deaths),” and going on to say, “It is not true. The data is not valid. If there were high numbers of people dead we would have stated it in our almost daily forest fire press releases last year.”
It seems Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has misunderstood the data which pointed to premature deaths, rather than deaths in the present period.
Greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year.
According to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires have just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons.
The findings bring into sharp focus the importance of ending business-as-usual approaches to land management in Indonesia if the world hopes to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
While the health impacts are an obvious and continuing legacy of the rapacious forest burning there are other grave consequences.
Non-health consequence of forest clearing and burning
The impacts on endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, in particular, are well documented. Tragic as this is, particularly for animals such as the Sumatran Tiger and the Orang Utan, I’ve concentrated on less well known impacts. The WWF covers the issue of Palm Oil and Biodiversity Loss most thoroughly.
Subsidence of peatlands and their increasing vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding
Flooding in deltas and riparian lowlands is accelerated by the subsidence of peatlands. Subsidence commonly occurs when channels are cut through peat lands as part of the clearing process. Peat dries out begins to release sequestered CO2 and shrinks. This is well documented in the Straits Times article which reminds us that unrestrained forest clearance to develop oil palm and pulpwood plantations leads to land subsidence.
The article observes that:
Millions of hectares of Indonesia’s former forest lands are slowly subsiding and could become flooded wastelands unable to grow food or timber-based products in one of the world’s most populous nations. Combined with rising sea levels, the scale of the problem becomes even more stark because much of the east coast of Sumatra is just a few metres above sea level.
It quotes Wetlands International which claims that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Sumatra’s peatlands have been drained, largely for agriculture.
Vast stretches of peatlands along Sumatra’s east coast that is mere metres about sea level. Mr Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International tells us:
These peatlands will become unproductive so that, over time, almost the entire east coast of Sumatra will consist of unproductive land that will become frequently flooded, adding that this means the livelihoods of the local communities will be jeopardised, and industrial plantations will not be possible any more.
Remediation is unlikely to be an option so the costs associated with this aspect of the palm oil industry are huge and inter-generational.
Siltation of drainage basins, mangroves and coastal waters
Clearing any land in humid environments increases run off and reduces the percolation of water into soils. Run-off velocity in such situations also increases and without the protective forest layer erosion increases, top soil is lost and carried into water courses, streams and rivers. This in turn reduces the efficiency of channel flow, increasing flooding and also leading to increased siltation of estuaries and coastal waters. Such siltation can disturb coastal mangroves and associated fish breeding areas. River transport, coastal fishing and coastal navigation all suffer.
Muhammad Lukman, in research towards his PhD, has identified elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in riparian and coastal sediments. He suggests that his findings could be evidence of the effects of widespread, long-term and intense agricultural burnings along with the many forest/peat swamp fires that have frequently occurred in the past 20 years or so.
Some estimates of cost can be made in terms of the costs of flood mitigation and control measures, losses arising from flooding of agricultural land and settled areas, and the immediate impacts on navigation and fishing
Forced closure of schools and educational institutions;
Such a cyclical problem will cause significant disruption to educational services and the development of human resources, particularly in Indonesia.
Closure of airports and disruption of airline schedules.
During the burning season 2015 flights were frequently cancelled at Sultan Syarif Kasim II (SSK II) airport Pekanbaru, in Riau province with visibility down to between 300 to 600 metres in the area. Elsewhere Kuching International Airport (KIA) in Sarawak, Malaysia was closed on September 10 with visibility down to some 400 metres. In Indonesia, poor visibility due to smoke disrupted flight schedules at Pinang Kampai Airport, Riau. All of these events have direct measurable impacts.
Losses sustained by the tourism industry and other business sectors
Last year Reuters quoted Irvin Seah, DBS economist in Singapore, who said, In 1997, the level of pollution was not this severe, and noting that the tourism industry’s contribution to the economy was relatively smaller back then.
The Reuters report observes that Tourism makes up 6.4 percent of Malaysia’s economy and about 5 to 6 percent of Singapore’s and quotesan ANZ research report that says, in Singapore, Shopping, restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment will all suffer during this hazy period.
While losses in tourism and ancillary sectors can be calculated there are increased costs to businesses across the board. Developing and implementing disaster relief plans for employees is one area that is immediately obvious, then there are the issues of work days lost owing to respiratory or cardio pulmonary illnesses, disruptions to supply chains and various other schedules of usual business activity. Finally there is the matter of impacts on ventilation and air conditioning filtration systems particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Impact on global warming
This was also broached in the previous post Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The precise impact of any one burning event is difficult to judge, but the immense quantities of carbon stored in the peatlands of Indonesia is cause for concern. One estimate suggests that Indonesia’s 1997 fires released 810 to 2,670 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 13 to 40 per cent of the fossil fuels emitted worldwide that year.
Recently I became aware of a website Idenesia Arsip Positifor Idenesia Positive Archive. The title is a clever and typically Indonesian play on words. The word for idea in Indonesia being ‘ ide. So this is an archive of positive ideas from Indonesia. It’s an initiative aimed at gathering and promoting short films and documentaries containing inspirational quality ideas intended to promote the advancement of Indonesia. The media is drawn from global sources but all focuses on Indonesian issues.
Idenesia Arsip Positif has already developed an extensive online library covering a wide array of comtemporary Indonesia social, developmental, educational and cultural issues.
The organisation maintains that the most valuable assets possessed by the Indonesian nation are the remarkable ideas for development of the nation that are held by the people themselves
A good place to start exploring Idenesia Arsip Positifis here with the site guide
One film I found particularly interesting was “People, Oil, Policy; Playing between welfare and curse” from the Revenue Watch Institute.
In addition to the digital archives the organisation also operates Idenesia for Schools as another initiative throughout Indonesia. This is directed towards schools that have difficulty accessing the archive. Actually many schools will have difficulty accessing the online archive because of Internet access difficulties are widespread in Indonesia. ” . . . Internet penetration is low in Indonesia, at 9.1% of the population in 2010, compared to some of its neighbours in the region (China 34.3%, Malaysia 55.3% and Vietnam 27.6% (ITU 2011). . .” According to the Deloitte report ‘The Connected Archipelago’.
This past week I attended the premier of Pria Viswalingam’s latest documentary Decadence: Decline of the Western World. I wasn’t disappointed. Although I’m broadly familiar with Pria’s basic thesis on the decline of the western world and share most of his views, I was still surprised by this extraordinary treatment.
Pria explores and lays bare much that a thoughtful observer would undeniably find cause for concern about a system that has passed it peak achievements. His critique, while damming in parts, is not a demolition of the Western way of life, rather it’s a call for attention to an approach that is slowly losing it’s democratic base; becoming numbed by secularism; streaming its educational approaches conferring the best on a few; mismanaging its financial systems; generating alarming inequities in the distribution of income; and creating an impulsive commodified cultural response that leaves its citizens stranded in consummerism.
Making a feature film length documentary is a challenging and daring task and Pria has clearly succeeded. He brings us a powerful work that easily holds an audience for the entire duration. His brilliant writing and beautiful imagery are the keys. They held my attention even when I realised that I’d heard some of it before, in one or more of our many discussions over the years. For the converted such as me there was still much to learn. For a younger generation of Westerners I’m hoping that this will be a major wake-up call.
The pre-publicity succinctly captures the approach when it informs us that Decadence recalls what we now take for granted – values that made the West the world’s pre-eminent civilisation for more than 300 years. But throughout history all civilisations rise and fall. Many a pundit has predicted the West’s demise but now we appear to have the evidence. Decadence asks whether it realises what it’s losing. It may even be a call to arms . . .
Decadence opened at the Roseville Cinema on 1 December, and will open at the Nova Carlton Cinemas on 8 december. Check for times and DON’T MISS IT.
May 2010 saw the completion of a census in Indonesia. The results show cause for concern because they indicate a marked jump in the population. Based on the census data Indonesia’s population was 237.6 million. This is 3.5 million more than previously forecast and represents a significant demographic spike. At this rate there are about 4.5 million births per year in Indonesia, equivalent to the population of Sydney, Timor Leste or Singapore, each year.
In 1930 Indonesia’s population was 60.7 million, by 1971 it had increased to 119.2 million, and at current rates it will more than double by 2057, reaching about 475 million people.
Population growth rates
Population growth rates have certainly slowed since 1980 but the census reveals what could be an upward trend.
The distribution of Indonesia’s population remains uneven. The aridity of the east and the challenges of the equatorial climates of the north are major constraints of settlement of the more outlying parts of the archipelago.
The latest figures from the 2010 census show population being distributed accordingly:
Population Distribution by Region: Indonesia 2010. Source Kompas, 10/01/2011
In raw figures this reveals the following populations by region
Java and Madura 136,596,240
Bali and Nusa Tenggara 13,068,000
Maluku and Papua 6,177,600
The area of Java and Madura accounting for less than 7 percent of Indonesia’s total land area. The consequence is that Javanese cities are very densely settled and have immense traffic problems. This translates into poor air quality, high noise levels, time consuming journeys to and from work and cramped living conditions. All of this results in time pressure and high stres levels presenting profound challenges to the quality of life.
The Indonesian daily newspaper Kompas, on Monday 10 January, quotes the Chairman of the Demographic Institute, Faculty of Economics, University of Indonesia, Sonny Harry B Harmadi as saying that the population increase is a consequence of the neglect of family planning program, particularly since the beginning of last decade. Family Planning is no longer so central to government priorities. Political commitment and support for the government budget on family planning (Keluarga Berencana or KB) has dropped.