By James Balowski
On September 16, President Suharto publicly apologised to Indonesia's neighbours for the fires which have blanketed large parts of Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines in choking smog. But those who hoped that this was a signal that Jakarta intends to address the problem seriously would be well advised, quite literally, to hold their breath. As the October 2 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review aptly put it, "The strong winds of market demand and the smouldering coals of collusion are likely to keep the fires raging for many dry seasons to come".
Although the fires started as far back as July, the Indonesian government has done little more than resign itself to watching them burn. Sufficient rain to douse the fires is not likely to begin until late October or November.
Satellite images show that almost 1 million hectares have been affected. Friends of the Earth International say that 220-290 million tonnes of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere — equal to half of Britain's annual emissions.
The long-term ecological implications could be devastating. The director-general of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Claude Martin, quoted in the Guardian on September 27, described the situation was a "planetary disaster".
Scientists have warned that the effect on long-term global warming and immediate weather patterns throughout the world could be immense.
Also threatened are an additional 1 million hectares of peat forests, which may burn for decades. Environmentalists calculate that if only the top 10 centimetres were to burn, it would release an additional 20 million tonnes of CO2 into the air.
Peat fires can burn deep underground for years and are almost impossible to control on a large scale. Firefighters have to dig around a site to locate the smoldering peat layers, then use sand to put them out. Every blackened log and stone must be turned over to make sure that embers are not hidden underneath.
Peat fires can also break out weeks after the initial surface fire has been put out. Although satellite photographs can locate hot spots indicating surface fires, they cannot pinpoint peat fires smoldering underground.
The lowland tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Kalimantan are among the most biologically rich ecosystems on earth, and whole species may be lost.
Smoke cuts down the light, reducing photosynthesis, which drives plant growth and powers the entire ecological system. When the rains do finally arrive, increased sediment loads due to reduced plant cover will be carried far out to sea, settling on coral and blocking out vital light. As the dead coral crumbles, island are simply washed away.
Smoke is also affecting bees in northern Malaysia, although the smog there is relatively light. They are feeding less, which means they pollinate fewer trees and plants — and that means less food for fruit-eaters and herbivores.
As insect numbers decline, so do the birds and reptiles which feed on them, affecting the entire food chain. Amphibians, which will suffer a dry season made worse by drought, will be especially vulnerable.
Larger animals are also at risk. Primates, such as the orangutan, are especially vulnerable because, unlike four-footed animals, they are slower and need trees to move through forest to escape the fires.
The potent mix of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ash — added to by industrial pollution and car exhaust — has produced a choking haze which, in some places, has reduced visibility to just a few metres. Airports throughout the region have been forced to cancel flights, and the effects on air and sea transportation have led to shortages of many goods.
Authorities in Jakarta say that 20 million Indonesians are suffering eye, skin and respiratory problems, mainly in southern Sumatra and Kalimantan. At least 70 million people in six south-east Asian countries have also been affected.
In parts of Indonesia the air pollution index (API) is six times the normal level, and particulate matter more than double the level deemed safe by authorities.
API levels in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, have reached world record levels, passing 800. The safe limit is considered to be 100; being exposed to API levels of 200 to 300 has roughly the same effect as smoking 20 cigarettes a day.
In the forests of Kalimantan, the extent of the suffering remains unclear. Many indigenous communities face food and water shortages and poisonous smoke.
Economic analysts are already warning that air pollution could add to the economic woes of the region; many south-east Asian economies are still reeling from dramatic currency devaluations.
Liew Yin Sze, head of research at the Singapore investment house J.M. Sassoon, told the Guardian on September 27 that industries from tourism to electronics to palm oil production could be affected.
In Malaysia's Johore state, the agriculture department is warning that reduced sunlight will affect crops. Fishing boats in Sarawak have been advised not to put out to sea, and Thais are complaining that poor visibility is hampering fishing in the Andaman Sea.
On September 26, Indonesia's agriculture minister, Syarifuddin Baharsyah, said that 173 rubber and palm oil plantation areas were on fire. Prices are already rising.
The haze is also hampering the ripening of fruits; traders and commodity associations said that it was already affecting coffee and cocoa production and disrupting transportation.
The tourist industry is taking a beating, resorts throughout the region reporting reduced occupancy levels. Resorts as far north as the Thai island of Phuket, 1400 kilometres from the nearest fires, are enveloped by grimy smog.
Smoke from fires which have broken out on the island of Lombok is expected to affect nearby Bali, which draws almost a third of Indonesia's tourists.
Perhaps the only ones to find a silver lining in the disaster are manufactures and distributors of household air purifiers and surgical masks. In Indonesia, the price of masks has soared from 500 rupiah (16 cents) to 4000 rupiah.
Since 1982, forest fires on a large scale in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Java have come with the onset of each dry season. A fire in Kalimantan in 1983, reportedly the largest in human history, destroyed 3.7 million hectares of rainforest, an area the size of the Netherlands.
In 1987, 2 million hectares, 1.4 million of primary rainforest, were destroyed in Kalimantan, Sumatra, East Timor, Sulawesi and mountain regions of Java.
In 1991 smoke and ash from fires blanketed Singapore, Malaysia and the Straits of Malacca, forcing Indonesia to call for international help.
Forest fires of this magnitude coincide with a rapid increase in logging and plantation activities which began in the early 1980s. In 1966, 82% of Indonesia's land mass was covered by primary forest. By 1982 this had shrunk to 68%, and recent satellite photographs indicate that forest cover — including timber plantations — is now down to about 55%.
In late 1996, the Indonesian minister of forests said that 20 million hectares of forest were in a critical state and warned that this was increasing rapidly. The World Bank estimates 800,000 hectares of forest are lost each year.
Around 64 million hectares — one-third of Indonesia's land mass — is devoted to commercial logging. In 1996 Indonesia became the world's largest plywood exporter.
Jakarta has been actively promoting timber estates in combination with transmigration programs to relocate people from densely populated Java and Bali to the outer islands. Clearing land for plantations also provides cheap labour from indigenous people deprived of their livelihood.
Around 35 companies are developing plantations in conjunction with transmigration. This year, about 300,000 hectares of virgin rainforest were approved for "conversion" to palm oil plantations.
Palm oil plantations are a major factor in the depletion of forests. Actively promoted by government, annual exports of palm oil and related products have now reach $US1 billion.
Crude palm oil production is projected to rise to 5.3 million tonnes in 1997, compared with 4.5 million tonnes last year. The government is planning to increase this to 7.2 million tonnes by 2000, more than doubling plantation area to 5.5 million hectares.
Although a ban on burning forest to clear land for plantations has been in place since 1995, burning is the cheapest and quickest way. Most of the land allocated for plantations is classified as "conversion forest", which has already been logged by timber companies. Any remaining trees are cut down and sold by the plantations before the brush and debris are burned.
A.F.S. Budiman, executive director of the Rubber Association of Indonesia, admitted to the October 2 Far Eastern Economic Review, "If you do land-clearing in pioneer areas, where no roads are established, the only practical way to get rid of the debris is to burn it".
When asked what happens when a local official tries to enforce the law, Budiman replied, "You just bribe him".
As criticism has mounted, Indonesian officials have attempted to shift the blame to El Niño, a climatic phenomenon which sucks moisture from the western side of the Pacific Ocean, disrupting normal weather patterns and inducing prolonged dry spells.
On September 28, the official Antara news agency and Suara Pembaruan quoted coordinating minister for people's welfare Azwar Anas as saying, "The freak weather phenomenon is partly to blame ... It's a natural disaster which no-one could have prevented."
But as far back as August, even the usually "subdued" Indonesian media were beginning to express what most people already knew — that the major obstacle to dealing with the fires is the close political and business links between the timber and plantation companies and President Suharto.
An Indonesian ministerial report released in mid-September blamed 176 logging and plantation firms located in eight provinces for the fires. Although the report listed the names of the companies, it failed to mention the principal shareholders or owners.
Many are owned by some of Indonesia's wealthiest and most prominent business figures. Among those listed were companies owned by Liem Sioe Liong, Eka Tjipta Wijaya, timber tycoon Mohammad "Bob" Hasan, Prayogo Pangestu of the Barito Pacific Group and even companies owned by an army foundation.
Included were Sinar Mas, which Hasan jointly owns with Malaysian conglomerates, and Hasan's PT Kiani Lestari, operating in South Kalimantan. Others were Pangestu's PT Musi Hutan Persada, in South Sumatra, Wijaya's PT Indah Kiat in Riau and several companies under the Salim Group, controlled by Liem Sioe Liong — reputedly the wealthiest man in Indonesia.
Liem's association with Suharto goes as far back as the 1950s, when he was a lieutenant colonel in command of the Central Java Division; he was dismissed from this post in 1956 for involvement in smuggling.
Hasan, also a long-term associate, plays golf with Suharto two or three times a week. Hasan first got involved in the forestry industry in 1972 with assistance from military contacts, going on to build the Kalimanis timber empire.
In the 1980s, he founded the Indonesian Plywood Association, which controls plywood exports. He is also head of the Indonesian Timber Society and the Indonesian Furniture Association.
In the past Hasan has countered criticisms of Indonesia's forestry management by launching overseas "seminars" and advertisements. He has accused environmental groups campaigning against destructive logging practices and violation of indigenous rights of being "stooges" of foreign timber interests.
Hasan has become Suharto's most trusted business adviser and runs the day-to-day affairs of a number business groups owned by private foundations controlled by Suharto.
Prayogo has ties to Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, better known as Tutut; they have common interests in a number of companies.
Despite being the worst affected of Indonesia's neighbours, Malaysia has failed to put any real pressure on Jakarta. The reason is not hard to find. A report from industry sources says that the Indonesian government is investigating 18 Malaysian and five Singaporean joint ventures for lighting fires in Sumatra.
An article by exiled Indonesian academic George J. Aditjondro in the October 1 Sydney Morning Herald paints a familiar picture of nepotism and political links between Malaysian timber and plantation firms, the Malaysian government and Indonesian conglomerates.
Malaysian business tycoon Robert Kuok is a shareholder in a South Sumatra oil palm plantation owned by Hashim Djojohadikusumo and his sister-in-law, Titiek Prabowo, Suharto's second daughter and wife of General Prabowo Subianto, head of the elite Kopassus military command.
Indonesian companies such as Raja Garuda Mas and Sinar Mas are involved in joint ventures in Sarawak with well-connected Malaysian conglomerates.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad's son Mirzan and Suharto's son Bambang Trihatmodjo are partners in the Malaysian Berjaya group, which has been severely criticised by US environmental groups for its widespread destruction of forests.
Too little too late
On September 9, Suharto reissued a 1995 ban on burning forest and called on the military to help enforce it. Companies were given until October 3 to prove they were not the culprits.
Laws allow up to 10 years' imprisonment and a 100 million rupiah fine for polluters. Not one company, however, has ever been convicted. Even the environment minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, admitted to Reuters on September 22 that environmental laws are not policed properly.
Soon after Suharto's announcement, the number of fires increased, as companies rushed to clear as much land as possible before the deadline. Even if the deadline was strictly adhered to, it would only let companies finish clearing land at a time the normal rainy season would have forced them to do so.
On September 26 the English-language daily Jakarta Post revealed that 14 of the firms named in the ministerial report were still clearing land in defiance of the official ban. The names of the firms were not specified.
On September 25, 1210 firefighters were sent to Sumatra from Malaysia. But a report in the September 29 Straits Times, which followed a team of Malaysian firefighters, indicated growing frustration over Indonesia's lack of coordination.
One firefighter, who did not want to be named, told the Times, "We came here to help. But instead we have been sitting around most of the time waiting."
On October 3, the Indonesian forestry minister, Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo, revoked the licences of nine companies for failing to meet the deadline to prove that they were not responsible for lighting fires. They included Hasan's PT Kiani Lestari, as well as companies owned by Pangestu, Widjaya and Liem.
Along with Kusumaatmadja, since being appointed to the cabinet in 1993, Djamaludin has been one of a small number of officials who have dared to take a stand. Many initiatives, however, have proved futile.
In October last year, Djamaludin refused to renew 60 forestry licences, citing poor land management. But in April it was revealed that the companies had continued operations as if nothing had happened.
Such actions have earned Djamaludin powerfully enemies. Only a day after he threatened to cancel Kiani Lestari's licence, a call was raised in parliament for his resignation.
On September 27, the government announced emergency relief of a mere 3.1 billion rupiah, less than US$800,000. A press statement by Friends of the Earth International chair Kevin Dunion said the amount is "shamefully inadequate given the magnitude of the tragedy. The government spends more than a hundred times this sum to keep powerful pulp, paper and peat barons in business."
The Indonesian environment NGO Walhi is currently taking Suharto to court for approving a loan of over US$100 million from state reforestation funds — almost half of last year's reforestation revenue — to help build Hasan's PT Kiani Kertas paper and pulp plant in East Kalimantan.
Walhi filed a similar but unsuccessful suit against Suharto in 1994, when a US$190 million loan from reforestation funds was made, interest free, to the Nusantara Aircraft Industry, headed by another long-term Suharto crony, technology and research minister B.J. Habibie. The state earns around US$3 billion from timber exports each year.
On October 2, Australian experts were dispatched to Indonesia to take part in a UN disaster relief team, using a A$2 million relief package announced by foreign minister Alexander Downer. This compares to the A$1.4 billion the Australian government put up to prop up the Thai baht.
A preventable disaster
Although El Niño is certainly contributing to the late rains, rainfall itself is reduced by the loss of forest cover. Forest cover also absorbs rain and acts as a water catchment. Clearing causes rivers to run fast and early, leading to erosion and quick drying up.
Rainforests are one of the wettest places on earth. Even in a drought, there is little to feed a fire. Because of the lack of undergrowth, when fires do break out, they move quickly through the forest, scarring trees but killing very few.
Scientist have also speculated that El Niño is getting worse because deforestation and the subsequent erosion are affecting air currents over surface water in coastal areas of Asia.
But it is not just the greed of Suharto and the logging and plantation firms which has created this disaster.
Government investment and "development" policies which have promoted destructive land clearing practices are spurred on by market forces and capitalism's endless drive for profit. Many of the projects were championed by and funded by institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, which pressure countries such as Indonesia to increase exports.
[James Balowski worked with environment organisations in Indonesia between 1993 and 1995.]