By Alex Harris
The expression "spreading like wildfire" has taken on a new meaning for me over the past few months. After just one month in Kalimantan, Indonesia, I became only too aware of the perilous living conditions of the local people. The new government and the International Monetary Fund must take responsibility for their actions in Kalimantan.
Throughout my time living in a village alongside the river, I could see, smell and taste the smoke enveloping Borneo. Constantly immersed in the haze, my eyes stung all the time, my throat was itchy and my lungs ached.
I spent most of my days with the village children, whose songs and laughter often ended in deep coughing fits. They have been immersed in the merciless haze for months. I have never seen a newborn baby chain smoke, but in Kalimantan, the toxicity of breathing is equivalent to smoking 40 to 80 cigarettes a day.
When I voiced my concerns to friends, they shrugged, saying, "In your country you have a snow season; in Kalimantan we have a smoke season".
Questioned further, however, they admitted that the smoke now is worse than they had seen before. Perhaps their complacency was resignation, a realisation that the situation was beyond their power to change.
I remember walking with a friend to our place of bathing and feeling sickened by the muddy and stagnant pond. I found out later that this was also our drinking supply. It hadn't rained for months, and many other wells had already dried up. We were more fortunate than some of the desperate villages forced to drink the industrially polluted river water.
On a trip to the city, we followed a highway that passed through "Suharto's forest". In many places, both sides of the road were on fire. The Suharto family had apparently invested in the coal beneath, not the rainforest that once covered it.
We were at a high enough elevation to see for miles around. What had recently been lush rainforest was now rolling hills of smouldering ash. Silhouetted solitary trees crested the blackened hills. I had to strain to see past the grey-brown washed haze, some areas thicker than others as the land continued to smoulder.
Amidst all this were isolated homes with small patches of green surrounding them, tiny oases fiercely protected from the encroaching blackness and starvation.
Usually self-sufficient for their food, the people are now surrounded by dry wells and cracked, burned fields — no arable land as far as the eye can see.
This is a disaster. Thousands of people are starving, suffering from a major water shortage and exposed to very high levels of toxicity in the air.
Those responsible are the huge conglomerates and the elite connected to Indonesia's ruling circle, who ravage the land without regard for the people or the environment.
Greater accountability of these elites is needed to ensure that their practices are stopped. The IMF proposals for the area, which also pose an incredible threat to environmental and human well-being, should undergo rigorous environmental and social assessment.
Although the government tries to blame local farmers for their fate, most forest fires in Indonesia were started by large conglomerates and politically influential businesses that had been given licences to turn vast areas of Borneo into commercial plantations.
Rainforests should not burn, but clearing of vast areas through destructive logging practices made these areas into tinderboxes just waiting for someone to light a match.
The BBC quotes the World Wide Fund as saying that the majority of the world's forest fires last year were started deliberately and often illegally in order to clear land for planting or development or to cover up illegal logging.
The plantations and big businesses do not take responsibility, accusing small farmers who have been working the land successfully over 4000 years and also blaming the El Niño effect. El Niño is not the only cause of drought in Kalimantan, however.
The cutting down or burning of forest makes it unable to retain moisture, thus altering the rain cycle and contributing to the drought. It is important to remember also that droughts are not the cause of the fires but only allow them to rage for longer.
The large companies and cartels are totally unaccountable for their actions. In Indonesia there is a complete absence of strict, enforceable regulations against clearing land by fire. Groups using irresponsible and illegal methods are not reprimanded, and in some cases have even been given money by the government to continue expanding the deforestation industry.
According to Indonesia Alert, former cabinet minister Mohammad "Bob" Hasan, a colleague of the ruling elite, was the beneficiary of a state grant of US$100 million, equal to half the annual state reforestation budget, which he used to build a pulp and paper factory. This money was given despite it being known that one of his companies violated a ban on burning.
Although the IMF is pushing for a disbanding of cartels and monopolies, it has not been successful in any tangible way. With IMF bailout loans, there is no enforced accountability for their use. The World Bank resident in the Jakarta offices, for example, admits, "30% of the money lent to Indonesia routinely disappears somewhere inside the government".
The IMF is pushing for further expansion of plantations in Kalimantan. It has at least two proposals that will result in further environmental damage.
First, the 1997 IMF agreement explicitly calls for the removal of "all formal and informal barriers" to investment in oil plantations, pushing for expansion of the oil palm sector although environmental groups are calling for a ban on further expansion.
Current plantations are estimated at 2 million hectares. In 1998, as part of a policy to address the monetary crisis, the Ministry of Agriculture has announced that 1.5 million hectares of plantations will be added.
Indonesian environmental groups note that plantation companies have already moved in to seize the forested territories of indigenous peoples and are expected to begin clear-cutting and burning within months.
Secondly, the IMF is pushing two planned mega-projects: a 1 million hectare plantation project in Irian Jaya and a 1 million hectare rice project in the Kalimantan peat swamp forests.
The IMF is supporting the Kalimantan project despite considerable scientific evidence that wet rice paddy cultivation is not likely to succeed on these acidic, infertile soils, which, once drained, are very vulnerable to fire. This project was begun in contravention of Indonesian law, which requires an environmental impact assessment.
The situation in the Indonesian rainforests can be helped, but it is essential that the groups responsible are exposed and that the practices that fuel the fires are stopped. Locally, millions of people suffer. Globally, it is the lungs of the earth that are being burned.