Choking on smoke: The growing curse of Indonesia's wildfires

A war of words has erupted in Southeast Asia as rampaging fires and choking smoke plumes stoke regional tensions between Indonesia and its neighbors. 

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Dense smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia have forced flight cancellations and school closures across the region, as diplomatic tensions heat up.

Singapore has slammed "shocking" statements from Indonesian officials who made light of the crisis.  In return, Indonesia accused Singapore of being "childish".

Dramas over choking smoke have become an annual soap opera in Southeast Asia as Indonesia continues to raze its forests.

Singapore is now taking legal action against major corporations, including the massive pulp producer Asia Pulp & Paper, that are regarded as key drivers of forest and peatland loss in nearby Sumatra, Indonesia.

In response, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the recurring fires and smoke were a long-term problem and would require time to be solved.

Fires are used as a quick and cheap way to clear forests and peatlands, with massive forest clearing underway on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.  Native forests are being destroyed for oil palm and pulp plantations, and for slash-and-burn farming.

Since 1997, mega-fires have become a virtually annual event each dry season.  A strong El Niño drought this year -- called "Godzilla" by some -- is increasing rainfall deficits across Indonesia and elsewhere in the western Pacific region.

The fires and smoke are rapidly worsening.  In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, air quality has hit hazardous levels, tens of thousands have suffered respiratory illnesses, numerous flights have been cancelled, and schools have been closed.

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Last week, Singapore's air pollution index hit hazardous levels, prompting officials to close all schools and distribute protective face masks.  Schools were also closed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Satellites detected more than 2,000 fire "hotspots" last week in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

As fires increase, officials in neighboring countries are growing increasingly frustrated.  Singapore has arrested seven corporate officials and suspended the business licenses of four corporations that are headquartered there.

Although many fires are started by small-scale farmers, large corporations are also responsible for burning both directly and indirectly.  By building new roads and exploiting large areas of native forest, corporations open up many areas to new human pressures.

Indonesia could and should enforce a major fire ban, but it would require a concerted effort on the part of the Widodo government.  Widespread corruption in the region is hindering efforts to enforce existing restrictions on fires and forest clearance.

Until the raging fires and smoke are brought under control, expect more hot words from Indonesia's increasingly frustrated neighbors.

 

China screams about arrest of its illegal loggers

The nation that is provoking more environmental degradation than any other today is very, very upset.

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Timber smuggled from Myanmar to China

Virtually everywhere one looks -- from the Asia-Pacific to Africa, and from Siberia to South and Central America -- China is behind hard-driving schemes to exploit the planet's natural resources. 

China is not only the world's biggest polluter in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is the largest global consumer of timber, construction minerals, iron ores, wildlife, and many other natural resources -- considerable amounts of which are obtained illegally, via corruption or smuggling.  

And through its massive investments in new roads, railroads, mining, dams, and other infrastructure, China is also substantially responsible for opening up many of the world's last remaining wild areas to exploitation.

China is upset because the nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has just handed out stiff jail sentences for illegal logging to more than 150 Chinese nationals.  The loggers were arrested in January following a crackdown on illegal forest activities.

Editorials in Chinese state-run media have expressed outrage at the arrests, demanding that those arrested be returned to China. 

For years China has sucked up timber and other natural resources in Myanmar, leading to growing frustration and resentment there.

A court in northern Myanmar -- where illegal logging has been especially rampant -- just handed out 'life' sentences to 153 Chinese loggers.  Such sentences typically run for 20 years in Myanmar. 

Despite the heated Chinese protests, the Myanmar government said it would not interfere in the judicial process. 

While the sentences are certainly severe, they reflect a growing view that Chinese investors, corporations, and workers often display a predatory attitude when working in foreign nations.

China is overwhelmingly the biggest global driver of the illegal wildlife trade, consuming vast quantities of ivory, pelts, bones, shark fins, and hundreds of other wildlife products, including those from a number of endangered species.

No nation consumes more tropical timber than China.  It has been heavily criticized both for failing to support illegal-logging measures internationally and for pursuing mainly raw logs from timber-exporting nations. 

China's addiction to timber

China's addiction to timber

Raw logs, which are unprocessed, provide only minimal employment, industrial development, and income for timber-exporting countries, and thus are the least profitable way for a nation to exploit its forests.

Last April, Myanmar banned the export of raw logs.  But many Chinese loggers have paid little attention to the new law and have been engaged in smuggling rings that have effectively stolen huge quantities of Myanmar's timber.

Timber smuggled into China from 2000 to 2013 was worth nearly US$6 billion, according to Myanmar government estimates.

Unless China reigns in its aggressive tactics, expect more backlash from developing nations that are feeling ripped-off.  No matter how much China screams about it. 

 

Protesters decry 'feeding frenzy' of African mining investors

Africa has become a feeding ground for foreign investors hoping to strike it rich by exploiting the continent's mineral resources. 

In London last week, a group of protestors disrupted a major event designed to attract new investors -- which was entitled "Mining on Top in Africa" -- arguing that an avalanche of new investment is posing huge environmental and social risks for African nations.

Africa shouldn't be for sale, argued the protestors

Africa shouldn't be for sale, argued the protestors

The protestors included members of international and British environmental and social-rights groups, including the Gaia Foundation, London Mining Network, War on Want, Divest London, Global Justice Now, and Stop Mad Mining, among others.

In addition to disrupting the proceedings, the protestors presented to the conference organizers a letter signed by 56 different environmental and social organizations (including ALERT) that underscored their many concerns.

They also distributed a list of ten case studies in which foreign-funded mining operations have had disastrous consequences for African nations.

Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars are pouring into African nations for mining projects.  China alone is investing over $120 billion annually, with India, Brazil, Russia, Canada, and Australia also making huge private investments there.

These investments are having many impacts.  For one thing, they are providing an economic impetus for a stampede of road and infrastructure expansion.  At present, there are plans for 29 massive "development corridors" -- almost all prompted by mining investments -- that will open up huge swaths of wild and semi-wild areas to a range of new human pressures, such as poaching, logging, and habitat destruction.

"Development corridors" driven by mining could open up Africa to massive exploitation.

"Development corridors" driven by mining could open up Africa to massive exploitation.

Beyond this, huge influxes of foreign funds for mining can promote large-scale bribery and corruption, which is already an endemic problem in many African nations. 

Large foreign investments can also fuel inflation.  A few become fabulously rich from big mining projects but many others are left behind -- and often struggle just to put food on the table or pay their rent.

Beyond this, many have questioned the value of so-called "Corporate Social Responsibility" investments by mining corporations, claiming they are little more than greenwashing designed to make the corporation look good but often have few real benefits for local communities.

Finally, foreign investments tend to drive up the value of national currencies, sometimes dramatically.  This makes other industries such as tourism and agricultural and manufacturing exports less competitive.  As a result, the economy becomes less diversified and stable -- and more prone to a 'boom and bust' when the minerals run out.

According to Hannibal Rhoades from the Gaia Foundation, one of the organizers of the protest, "Foreign investors can smell blood in the water in Africa right now.  They're after quick profits but we see huge long-term risks to Africa's natural wonders and native societies if this feeding frenzy isn't brought under control."

 

 

 

 

 

The corruption scandal engulfing Papua New Guinea

Hearing about a bad deed is one thing.  Seeing it with your own eyes is something else altogether.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Think, for example, about the riots that engulfed Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers who were filmed viciously beating Rodney King

Or the firestorm that engulfed National Football League star Ray Rice in the U.S.  Rice reported to his team that he and his wife had had an altercation and that he'd struck her in an elevator.  The NFL was inclined to fine and forgive Rice until a video of the actual incident emerged.  It now remains unclear whether Rice will ever play NFL football again.

Alas, we are now seeing a comparable scandal in Papua New Guinea.  Everyone in the know is aware that corruption is a serious problem in PNG

But this shocking tape -- filmed with a hidden camera -- shows in graphic detail just how bad things have become.  Indeed, one of the most alarming elements of the video is just how matter-of-fact those interviewed are about how one actually goes about bribing high officials in PNG.

It's worth a few minutes to watch this short documentary -- it's well produced and more than compelling. 

And here's an intriguing teaser: One of the main 'bad guys' in the tape actually has an intimate financial and personal connection to one of the world's most popular rock bands. 

Ever hear the hit song "Go Geronimo" by the Australian rock band Sheppard?  

After seeing this short documentary, I doubt you'll ever think of that song the same way again.

 

Malaysian 'eco-thug' tries to halt book exposing his crimes

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. 

Where once stood proud forests... eco-devastation in Sarawak.

Where once stood proud forests... eco-devastation in Sarawak.

After reportedly making billions of dollars for himself and confederates by pillaging and destroying vast expanses of Borneo's rainforests, former Sarawak timber chief and governor Abdul Taib is now being brought to task by a new book.

Entitled Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia, by Lukas Straumann, the book accuses Taib of massive corruption, despotic behavior, and committing one of the greatest environmental travesties in history.

The forests of Sarawak, a Malaysian state in northern Borneo, have been devastated in recent decades by intensive logging and conversion to oil palm plantations.  This has had profound impacts on biodiversity, indigenous peoples, and forest carbon stocks in the region.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has referred to the rampant pillaging of Borneo's forests as “probably the biggest environmental crime of our times”.

As reported recently in the leading environmental website Mongabay, lawyers representing Taib and the Malaysian government are attempting to block Money Logging's publication, by threatening its publishers with legal action. 

The publishers have announced they intend to press ahead with the book.

In March, ALERT highlighted some of Taib's notorious activities -- slamming him for unprecedented environmental misdeeds and corruption.  The scale of Taib's environmental crimes can be seen in this shocking video.

So far, Taib's lawyers haven't said anything to us -- but we'll certainly let you know if they do.

 

ALERT's campaign to defend Papua New Guinea's rainforests

Today, ALERT is launching a press release to highlight a serious peril to the rainforests and indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea

Not happy about land-grabs  (photo by William Laurance)

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a South Pacific nation with one of the world's largest surviving tracts of tropical forest.  And it is among the most culturally diverse regions on Earth, with more than 800 distinctive tribes, each with their own unique language.

But in recent decades the forests of PNG have come under assault from predatory logging, land-clearing, and mining.

Some of the worst offenses are known as 'Special Agricultural and Business Leases' (SABLs).  SABLs span a vast expanse of PNG -- more than 5 million hectares -- over 11% of its entire land area.

The SABLs are notorious not only for their serious environmental impacts, but also because they are seen as corporate land-grabs that are robbing indigenous groups from their traditional land rights. 

Most of these leases are for 99 years in duration -- an eternity for an indigenous group that relies on its forest and traditional lands for survival.

The PNG government initially set up the SABLs as a way to encourage large-scale development, such as oil palm plantations.  But many of the SABLs have been snapped up by foreign logging corporations that are using them to dodge PNG's forestry laws -- to log the rainforests illegally.

In response, there has been an outcry in PNG, especially from indigenous groups.  This eventually forced the government to launch a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the SABLs.

The Commission found so many problems, abuses, and outright illegalities that it recommended the government cancel or phase out most of the SABLs.

But the PNG government has so far failed to do so -- at least for the biggest and most damaging SABLs.  Why?  There is a distinctive whiff of something not right here.

ALERT's press release, on the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia next month, underscores a critical peril to one of the world's most biologically and culturally diverse regions.