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Indonesia's Silent Tragedy in a Connected World by Erik Meijaard from Jakarta Global 30.10.2015

There may finally be some positive developments regarding Indonesia’s fire and haze crisis, with rains in Sumatra and Kalimantan starting to reduce fires. But this isn’t over. If previous El Niño fire events are anything to go by, the fire problem with now shift to the eastern part of Borneo and Papua, and could continue well into 2016.

Politicians, pay attention. “We didn’t know,” just doesn’t cut it. Why has it taken you so long to realize the severity of this crisis, and are you ready now for the next phase?

A week ago I suggested that Indonesia’s 2015 fire and haze problems were “the biggest man-made environmental disaster of the 21st century.” I concluded that after comparing government data on economic, human and environmental impacts from the fires with previous environmental disasters. And I couldn’t find a bigger catastrophe. But even for a conservation scientist like me, it took a few months of burning to realize how exceptionally bad things were.

Once the major impacts of the fires became clear, public attention rapidly increased. Newspaper articles and programs by television networks like Al Jazeera, BBC, ABC and Channel News Asia powerfully reported what was happening. The social media wave that followed indicated that many people were very concerned. Some in the Indonesian government concurred. The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) referred to the fire and haze as a "crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions."

The Great Roundabout in hazy Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, in late October. (Photo courtesy of Bjorn Vaughn)

But many other members of Indonesia’s government considered all this talk about fire disasters and crime rather hyperbolic. The Indonesian minister of home affairs said in early September that the fires in Indonesia were not yet a national disaster, “because only Sumatra, Banten and some areas in Kalimantan” were burning. More recently, the environment and forestry minister suggested that her ministry was in control of the situation, and that “to label this a [national] disaster, we still need to study everything.”

It’s good to get these calming insights from the people who really know what is going on, but why was the government downplaying the severity of the crisis at a time when the public was very much aware of it? I surely cannot read the intricate power networks within the government and would not claim to understand the full implications of calling Indonesia’s fires a national emergency. I also realize there are financial complications to calling such a national emergency.

But still, if the government thinks that dozens of haze-related deaths, thousands of sick people, thousands of predicted pre-mature deaths, massive environmental pollution, a global carbon emission crisis, and billions of dollars of economic costs to Indonesia, do not make a disaster, then what will?

My conclusion about the lack of attention to the severity of the Southeast Asian haze crisis is that it is a Silent Tragedy.

Speaking to a radio reporter, her comment that in the eye of the public, Indonesia’s annual fires were “boring” emphasized the silent nature of this tragedy. Fires and haze occur every year in Indonesia. But even after there were catastrophically bad fire episodes, like those in 1982-83, 1988-89, 1997-98, and 2004, there was never any real change in political and societal attitudes towards the use of fire in land clearing.

Unlike other environmental tragedies or natural disasters, Bhopal, Chernobyl, the Nepal Earthquake, or Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Southeast Asian fire and haze disaster did not come in one big bang. Instead the disaster happened over months, affecting people over large geographies, and killing people over time and rarely on the spot. It’s silent, but deadly.

But there might be more to this silence. Maybe, Indonesia, as a land of puppet masters and shadow play, stands out in its ability to keep things quiet and obscure. Talking to an Indonesian journalist who had interviewed university students in Jakarta about the haze, one comment that stuck with me was that “the fires and politics around it were just too sad to contemplate, and no action could possibly help to create change.”

A woman sweeping in front of a shop selling drinking water in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, in late October. (Photo courtesy of Bjorn Vaughn)

Is there a certain attitude here of acceptance towards calamity and helplessness in the face of political apathy? Is there a head-in-the-sand attitude to accepting major problems: Act like the problem doesn’t exist and with some luck and prayer it will go away? Is there a more general tendency here not to acknowledge mistakes, not to lose face, keep up a brave smile, and move on?

I don’t know. But what I do know is that hiding problems is increasingly difficult in a world that is globally connected. Indonesia is not an isolated island in the world, but connected through trade, travel, cultural affinities and through its skies. A national attitude that primarily focuses inward and acts like neighbors don’t exist is not going to benefit this country. Indonesia can only prosper more if its international reputation is good.

So, the first step has been taken. Indonesia acknowledges the problem. Now it needs to solve it. This can be done, because I have seen it done before. When illegal logging was rampant in the early 2000s, and everyone was saying that the problem could never be solved, the government stepped in, and largely got rid of organized illegal logging through a boots-on-the-ground and enforcement approach.

Again, Indonesian boots are needed on the ground to fight fires and do everything possible to prevent new ones, especially on peat lands where fire has become an effective weapon in land speculation. Longer-term solutions have been spelled out by others. But the success of effectively addressing this annual problem will start with the government bravely acknowledging the challenge and facing up to it.

A child walks on a street in the Central Kalimantan capital of Palangkaraya, as a motorcycle fades into the hazy background. (Photo courtesy of Bjorn Vaughn)

Unity in national government under an increasingly concerned president is a first step. Getting local governments to comply is a challenging second. Maybe the national government should actually suspend the provincial administrations of the serial-offending provinces, or cut their provincial and district budgets, especially if there are indications that members of local governments personally benefited from fires and related land speculation.

Whatever the chosen solution, I really hope 2016 will be the year a breath of fresh air starts blowing through Indonesia’s environmental governance, with government officials realizing that every decision they take on development has a social and environmental cost attached to it. These are costs that Indonesia cannot afford to ignore if it wants to be friends with a connected world and its own people.

Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative. Follow @emeijaard