Indonesia’s Fires and the Companies at the End of a Burning Supply Chain

Haze visible from space envelops Borneo in 2006 as fires rage in Kalimantan, Indonesia. This year's fires are far worse, perhaps even the worst in history.
Haze visible from space envelops Borneo in 2006 as fires rage in Kalimantan, Indonesia. This year’s fires are far worse, perhaps even the worst in history.

As you read this, enormous fires are burning on the Indonesian side of Borneo, and on Sumatra. And the resulting haze is creating a environmental catastrophe throughout the region, putting the health of tens of millions at risk. These are, quite possibly, the largest fires in human history.

Many are blaming El Nino, which is causing dry conditions through much of Southeast Asia as it brings much-needed rain to California. But the truth is that the fires were caused by humans, and historically, such fires have directly benefited two of the world’s biggest industries – palm oil and pulp/paper.

Palm oil travels on a vast supply chain all the way to America, where it is the most consumed food oil. You’ll find it in your bathroom, in your snack foods. Companies that purchase palm oil from Indonesia are directly responsible for the climate disaster we’re seeing right now.

Here why: Fires don’t occur naturally in the tropics, as they do in California. Similarly, palm oil is not native to Indonesia, for a reason. Much of Sumatra and Kalimantan are peatlands, naturally wet and swampy. Before palm-oil cultivation arrived in Sumatra, brought as a cash crop by the Dutch, local people never planted on peat, living instead alongside rivers and farming swidden, rotational agriculture on higher ground.

Because palm plants require dry land to grow, palm oil plantation owners drained the peats, leaving the land in an unnaturally dry state.

Now, here’s the problem – Indonesia’s peat lands contain some of the densest carbon stock in the world. Peat forms a critical component of the natural carbon-sink in Southeast Asian forests, regulating climate globally. When a peat fires starts, it can be nearly impossible to put out. That is why, despite millions in firefighting, fires continue to rage in Indonesia and haze continued to billow into Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

For years, fire was used to clear land to turn into plantations, and that palm oil ends up in corporate supply chains. This is even the case for palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, whose industry-crafted, weak and rarely-enforced guidelines have left even those plantations susceptible to fire.

Fires are probably the worst way to clear forest. But they are also the cheapest, and serve another function – a de-facto land grab. Pristine forest is difficult to convert into palm oil or pulp plantations. But recently burned forest and peat? Welcome, palm. Haze and smoke are merely externalities, a cost passed on by palm and pulp producers to the entire region — and, through massive CO2 emissions expected this year to be greater than that of Germany, to the world.

It is easy to blame Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, or farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan, for Indonesia’s fires, but this is not just an local problem. It is a global problem, connected by supply chains and transnational corporations. This is global, multibillion dollar business, run by giant companies and thousands of smallholders along a long, complicated supply chain. Any effort to stem fires needs a stronger push for sustainable supply chains and accountability on the demand side as well, beyond the headlines-making but ineffective zero-deforestation pledges.

We are seeing signs of this in Singapore, the country closest to Indonesia and facing dangerous haze levels, which has begun removing products from companies connected to the fires from its grocery stores. If more countries did the same, this could have a powerful effect of forcing companies to think twice before letting fires encroach on their land, or from purchasing palm oil or pulp from those companies.

We also need to focus on prevention. Fires wouldn’t have happened if restoring ecosystem and returning Indonesia’s tropical forests to an healthy state had been a priority for government and the palm oil industry. The millions being spent on firefighting now – not to mention the billions in negative economic and tourist impacts that Greenpeace estimates – could have been better used in prevention through ecosystems restoration. This means a greater recognition that stopping fires is more than just firefighting, but a larger social and economic problem.

This is key. All the rhetoric about holding those responsible for the fires accountable will mean little if the incentives to burn remain in Indonesia. Changing this will be a tall task, but the current crisis just might be the right catalyst. The first step – companies like PepsiCo, which still source palm oil from risky sources, need to come clean and commit to supply chain transparency. They should also take the lead in helping restore Indonesia’s forest ecosystems. This is a global crisis, and it requires a global solution.

Image credit: NASA via Wikipedia

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.