Over the past few months, fires have destroyed millions of acres of rainforest in Brazil’s Amazon region, normally one of the wettest areas in the world, as well as in Indonesia, which has been immersed in the world capitalist economy since the U.S. covertly engineered a military coup there in 1965 that massacred up to 3 million progressives. (See “Indonesia: the Second Greatest Crime of the Century,” workers.org/books.)
Two of the coldest areas of the world, Siberia and Alaska, have also endured massive wildfires. The cloud of smoke generated by Siberian fires this summer covered an area larger than all the European Union countries combined. (BBC, Aug. 14) Siberia and Alaska suffered from an extreme heatwave due to global warming, which has dried out the forests and made them vulnerable to lightning strikes.
The Tribal Alliance of Territorial Communities, an international coalition of Indigenous leaders, is meeting in New York during the United Nations climate summit to call attention to the destruction of their lands, to confront climate change and to demand increased protection for the environment. They also contributed a large contingent to New York’s climate strike march on Sept. 20.
Indonesian fires made in USA
Palm oil is an essential ingredient in all sorts of consumer products, from infant formula to potato chips to shampoo and toothpaste. Much of the menu items and frying processes in fast food restaurants involve palm oil. Major U.S. corporate consumers, including Mars and PepsiCo, have committed to buying palm oil from “responsible” companies. But Greenpeace has debunked their claims. (“The global demand for palm oil is driving the fires in Indonesia,” qz.com, Sept. 18)
Palm oil is also used to produce biodiesel fuel for trucks. In response to pressure from environmentalists, laws have been passed in the U.S. encouraging the use of biofuels in trucks and cars in an attempt to replace gasoline and diesel. But the way most biofuels are produced doubles the greenhouse effects of conventional fuels. (New York Times Magazine, Nov. 20, 2018)
A major part of the world’s supply of palm oil, an essential ingredient in so many products, comes from Indonesia, which supplied 56 percent of the world’s demand in 2018. Another 40 percent comes from Malaysia. Many of the forests in Borneo and Sumatra, the islands that produce most of the palm nuts from which palm oil is extracted, are very old. Centuries of plant decay have created thick layers of peat.
Once the existing trees have been cut and removed — generally by burning — this peat land creates very good conditions for palm nut trees. When the trees are exhausted, they are cut down and burned. More are planted until the soil is no longer productive.
Even though setting fires to clear land is restricted in Indonesia, more than 35,000 fires have been counted this season. (BBC News, Sept. 19) Given that the weather has been unusually warm and dry, the peat land — the soil itself — has caught fire and is burning, sometimes for months, producing a very distinctive smoke and fine particles that can cause tremendous distress. This smoke has spread throughout Southeast Asia, shutting schools and clogging lungs not only in Indonesia (population 265 million) but also in Singapore (5.6 million), Malaysia (31 million) and Vietnam (96 million).
The smoke from the fires in Indonesia is what the U.S. media have focused on.
Based on previous fire seasons, the World Bank is predicting the direct costs to the Indonesian economy will add up to around $15 billion.
The whole ecology of Indonesia has been distorted and devastated in the service of U.S. imperialist interests — from fast food to biofuels and all the other consumer products that use palm oil.
While mineral-based fuels are still Indonesia’s largest export, the category that includes palm oil is the second-largest and has much more impact. If Indonesia stopped producing palm oil, the whole world would notice.
But it can’t stop — because U.S. corporations call the shots.