- Public responses to fires and haze in the Canada and in Indonesia is entirely different
- In Indonesia, NGOs blame palm oil companies and politicians, in Canada, the media turns to scientists
- The different responses have the stench of Western superiority and a North-South divide
- The coming El Nino event will put the onus on NGOs to put forward more constructive responses
The tragic wildfires in Canada have provoked a significant and warranted response from citizens on the North America’s Northeast.
The media response to the Canadian fires among US media has generally been twofold: first, managing the problem for those affected by smoke; and second, looking at the root causes of the fires, and how to manage those problems going forward, particularly as they relate to forest management and prevention. This often ends up with conversations with experts.
NGO and any finger-pointing are largely left out of the debate. Why? In part because it’s generally well understood that governments across jurisdictions in North America need to devote more resources to forest management, and that forest management agencies need to re-adapt their existing practices to forests that have been subject to fire suppression and reduced controlled burns.
These are all sensible responses that, for the most part, remain scientific and depoliticized. There is no singling out of industries, individuals, or an argument that responsible parties should be prosecuted.
Contrast this with coverage of fire events in Southeast Asia and the lead-up to the annual fire season. There is often only one factor that gets blamed: palm oil.
The contrast in the responses is a useful example of how campaign groups can and will selectively exploit wildfires to highlight their own causes, rather than seek solutions that will benefit both the forests, climate, and those suffering ill health effects.
In 2020, for example, which was a low fire season year, WWF wrote in relation to palm oil and fires:
“The conventional [palm oil] industry practice of using fires to clear land releases large quantities of carbon dioxide which, in turn, accelerates climate change.”
Using fires to clear land is not a ‘conventional industry practice’, and is forbidden under Indonesian and Malaysian laws, as well as under mandatory certification schemes in both those countries.
The complications are well understood by expert institutions such as CIFOR – the world’s leading forest institution — which even put together a publication for the media on how to better cover the multiple factors involved in smoke and haze events – and not simply blame palm oil.
And as CIFOR has noted with regards to fire and Indonesia:
“Although satellite observations show that about 1 in 5 fires start inside of oil palm concessions, recent research by CIFOR suggests the story is more complicated, as local communities also occupy land inside concessions, and fires ignited outside can spread into concessions.”
So according to this calculation, less than 20 per cent of forest fires can be attributed to fires on palm oil concessions, and even less can be attributed to the owners of palm oil plantations.
It’s a much more simplistic explanation to blame the cause of the fires – which are extremely complex – on a palm oil, even if it has no basis in fact.
Worse, this has a stench of Western hypocrisy. In 2019, the New York Times wrote no less than three stories squarely blaming palm oil for Indonesian fires that year, despite expert knowledge demonstrating otherwise.
Why? It’s easier to blame a large business for an environmental problem rather than accept that poverty and a lack of resources is a root cause of poor environmental outcomes. And ultimately, that it requires money to look after the environment – something that developing nations don’t have and Western nations aren’t willing to hand over.
The Canadian fires arrive in a year that is likely to be a bad haze season across much of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The likely El Nino and a prolonged dry season are likely to provide a catalyst for fires.
If it eventuates it will be a tragedy for those living in the region. NGOs are likely to point their finger, and New York Times editors will join in the blame game, without bothering to understand the complexity – as they have with Canada’s fires. The real concern of Western consumers won’t be palm oil. As CNBC wrote this week: “El Nino is approaching and your next cup of coffee could be at risk.”
Perhaps, though, Canada’s fires will make Western audiences a little bit more curious.