21 June 2013

Smoke, Climate Change, and Blame-Gaming in Indonesia’s Forest Fire Crisis


Satellite Capture from the NASA Earth Observatory, June 19 2013.

On Thursday the AP reported that smoke from wildfires in farms and plantations in Sumatra’s Riau province near Dumai has sent air pollution levels in Singapore to the worst levels ever recorded, with pollution significantly higher than the records set during the massive drought induced wildfire disaster of 1997. While haze from Indonesian wildfires has become an almost regular yearly occurance, the AP quoted Singapore’s environmental minister who wrote that this year’s was the worst the country had ever seen.

The fires have put perennial strains on relations between Indonesia and its neighbors, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, and this year is no different. Today’s front page of Kompas led with a huge photo of Singapore skyscrapers shrouded in hazy smoke, and the headline read that the Singapore PM is promising to issue sanctions if the responsible parties are not exposed and punished.

For those familiar with Indonesian environmental history, the news that this year’s smoke is worse than 1997 is somewhat surprising. Back in 1997, massive wildfires swept across vast stretches of Sumatra and Kalimantan destroying millions of hectares of forest. The devastated areas and the smoke they billowed were big enough to be clearly visible from space, captivating Euro-American audiences as they watched tropical paradise burned to the ground. As Anthropologist Anna Tsing wrote in her 2004 book, Friction, the smoke and flame produced a crisis of visibility and culpability—who was to blame? While people living near the fires blamed transnational logging and agricultural corporations for the fires, the Indonesian state officially blamed small scale farmers who use fired to clear land for cultivation.

Defense.gov News Photo 971117-F-5801M-002

A U.S. firefighting plane drops flame retardants in Sumatra, 1997.

The question of blame and the apparent inaction of the Indonesian government serves as a good introduction to the complex clientelist relationships between the various state bureaucracies charged with care of land and environment and the industrial corporations who profit from resource exploitation—especially the combined forces of logging and oil palm cultivation. Illegal clearing of protected forests for example, might be carried out by a company otherwise acting fully within the bounds of the law and under the auspices of one or more of the environmental/forestry/land bureaus. While the phrase “illegal logging” conjures up images of small bands of criminals stealing valuable protected timber, the reality in Indonesia is more often that a transnational corporation “accidentally” oversteps its concession to clear protected or state-owned forest. Or alternatively, that multiple, coinciding mapping schemes and land use plans can show that a single forest is protected one the one hand and fair game for logging on another.

This time around the Indonesian government is again blaming small farmers for starting the fires. However given the location and frequency of recent fires suggest a source in plantation or logging corporations (possibly foreign owned) using fire to clear land, a practice that although illegal, is widely practiced (see for example, the case of the Tripa fires of 2012). Furthermore, given that small farmers will be affected by climate change more than any other group in the coming years, such accusations may amount to blaming the victim while guilty corporations enjoy blanket impunity.

Indeed, Kompas reports that the fires may have started in a Acacia plantation which has apparently been burning since last Tuesday. Meanwhile, at least one woman has been killed by the fires and many others injured. Worse yet, there has been almost no media discussion of the certainly massive damage to small-holder gardens and farms in the affected area, with nearly all sympathy going to the down-stream victims of the drifting smoke.

In 1997, the fires were a more or less unprecedented disaster in terms of scale and damage. But with the frequency and damage caused on the increase, one can’t help but wonder what the fires will be like a few years from now as the climate continues to warm. In Indonesia, climate change (rightly) conjures a lot of worry about sea level rises and the potential for hundreds or thousands of islands to be swallowed up, but as this year’s fires are showing, there are other, less clearly predictable disasters that may ensue.


Associated Press. “Singapore pollution from Indonesian forest fires hits record levels.” 20 June 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/20/singapore-pollution-record-levels

Kompas. “PM Singapura Janji Memberi Sanksi.” 21 June 2013.

Kompas. “Asap menelan Korban Jiwa.” 21 June 2013.

Tsing, Anna. 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.