Guest essay by Eric Worrall
What is the difference between killing a million people, and burning down a few trees? Maybe not a lot, according to Oscar Nominated Film Director Joshua Oppenheimer.
Why today’s global warming has roots in Indonesia’s genocidal past
The mass killings in 1965 live on in global emissions from forced forest fires – and through human rights abuses in the palm oil fields.
There has been tremendous concern over the ways climate change will affect human rights, but little attention to how human rights abuse affects our global climate.
Fifty years ago, Indonesia went through a genocide. The massacres may be relatively unknown, but in a terrible way the destruction continues, and threatens us all. In 1965, the Indonesian army organised paramilitary death squads and exterminated between 500,000 and 1 million people who had hastily been identified as enemies of General Suharto’s new military dictatorship. Today, the killers and their protégés are comfortable establishment figures whose impunity, political power and capacity for intimidation endure.
Over this past year the lawlessness that began with the genocide arrived in all our lives. Some 130,000 forest fires in Indonesia darkened the skies over much of south-east Asia last summer and autumn, destroying more than 8,100 square miles of virgin rainforest – an area larger than New Jersey or Wales. The fires released more than 1.75 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equal to the total annual emissions of Japan. While last year’s fires were the worst on record, fires on a similar scale have burned annually for nearly 20 years, making a mockery of our efforts to curb global warming.
The fires are started by Indonesian and international companies to burn rainforest and replace it with oil palm plantations. Palm oil is the world’s most commonly used plant-based oil, and the market for it has exploded along with the global middle class. Setting fires is the cheapest way to clear land for new oil palm plantations.
This is both the world’s worst ecological disaster and a human rights catastrophe – and we are all implicated. We benefit from this rule of fear and the destruction of the forests by consuming many of Indonesia’s exports. Palm oil is used in many beauty products, snacks and desserts from companies like Starbucks, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Unilever, and countless others. While a few companies have started to make meaningful strides towards eliminating conflict palm oil from their products, most remain recalcitrant – to the detriment of Indonesians and our global ecosystem.
Indonesia suffered huge injustices under the repulsive General Suharto. But Indonesia today is a democracy. An imperfect democracy, with rampant corruption and human rights abuses, but nevertheless a democracy, a country in which an elected civil government controls the military, a country which is genuinely attempting to clean up its act, with strong government support for powerful institutions dedicated to rooting out the worst abuses, and building a better future.
What about Oppenheimer’s claim of “human rights abuses” in the Palm Oil industry? I’m sure that in a country as corrupt as Indonesia, many Palm Oil operations are far from squeaky clean. But Palm oil is not an unmitigated disaster for poor people. Palm oil jobs and income are a major source of employment and poverty alleviation in rural Indonesia.
Although only contributing around 14 percent to GDP, agriculture provides employment for over 41 percent of the Indonesian population and provides around two-thirds of rural household income. The palm oil industry is a significant contributor to rural income in Indonesia. In 2008, over 41 percent of oil palm plantations were owned by small land holders, producing 6.6 million tonnes of palm oil.
With over half of Indonesia’s population lives in rural areas—of which over 20 percent live below the poverty line—the palm oil industry provides an incomparable means of poverty alleviation. Limiting the conversion of forest to agriculture or palm denies considerable prospective economic benefits and improvements in living standards to the rural population, condemning them to declining standards of subsistence.
I am not suggesting that improved rural income excuses corruption and abuse of human rights. But to ignore the progress Indonesia has made, to compare illegally burning a few trees, as part of a process which creates life changing jobs and income for some of the poorest people in the world, to a brutal genocide which occurred 50 years ago, is a gross insult to the memory of the victims of a dark period of Indonesia’s history.