- Wildfires are a global phenomenon responsible for tragic loss of life and livelihoods
- Western activists and media often only focus on plantations when covering fires in Indonesia
- The human tragedy is overlooked in favour of an anti-palm bandwagon – unlike coverage of fires in Western countries
Fires in Western countries have been dominating the global media. International attention has focused on Hawaii, where the deadliest U.S wildfire in over 100 years has decimated large areas of Maui and claimed more than 100 lives.
Hawaii is not alone. The Spanish island of Tenerife in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northwest Territories of Canada and the Pacific coast of California are just some regions that are also suffering the cost of lives and dollars lost from wildfires.
At the beginning of last year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report on global fires which concluded that wildfires are a widespread issue with multiple complex causes. . Featuring contributions from dozens of independent experts from around the world, the report says, “From Australia to Canada, the U.S. to China, across Europe and the Amazon, wildfires are wreaking havoc on the environment”. The report also highlights that trying to provide simplistic solutions is a mistake: there are none.
Experts in fire and deforestation reject the notion that there is an overly simplistic cause-and-effect pattern when it comes to fires. Mike Flannigan, Research Chair for Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada affirms this, noting that “Fire is a multifaceted issue that needs a multipronged approach…There’s no silver bullet or vaccine that’s going to make this thing go away.”
Further, global experts certainly do not think it wise to blame any one industry, commodity, or sector.
Still, in recent weeks activists have made claims that palm oil companies are to blame for fire risk across southeast Asia. This approach is at odds with the experts, who highlight that such a blame-game is both factually inaccurate and unhelpful to solving the problem.
The possible causes of fires around the world are being recognised as varied and complex, including faulty power lines, extended dry weather caused by climate change, non-native grassland species, poor forest management, and many more. What is clear is that the cause is not palm oil (Hawaii, California and Canada, for example, produce no palm oil. And yet they have wildfires.).
Activists who blame everything on palm oil ignore such complexity and the scientific facts. Instead, their finger-pointing leads to reasons like “company activities” being cited as the cause, at least according to one environmental researcher quoted in Mongabay this week.
It is unfair, misleading, and dangerous for activists and outlets like Mongabay to villainize developing countries’ agriculture while they refuse offer solutions or recognize the fact that wildfires are a complex global phenomenon – and not an isolated event caused by an industry that supports millions of families in the developing world.
It’s also worth noting also that over the past two decades, the area that has been lost to wildfire has been consistently higher in Russia, Canada, the US, Brazil and Australia than Indonesia.
Canada’s burned area was almost ten times of that in Indonesia; Russia’s was more than twenty times as large; the US was almost five times as large.
Even in 2015, which was the last major haze year for the region, Canada’s burned area was six times that of Indonesia; the US was three times.
There’s also a major difference on how wildfires are reported in Indonesia and Western countries that is much more problematic. When a wildfire burns in Australia, Canada or the US, it is – rightly — treated as a human tragedy, where lives and livelihoods are lost. When the same happens in Indonesia, the livelihoods of local communities are somehow forgotten, and it instead becomes a vehicle for Greenpeace to blame palm oil companies for not taking enough action to prevent fires – despite the fires generally being lit by smallholder farmers, and just 20 per cent of fires taking place in palm plantation areas.
As the Indonesian dry season drags on and the haze emerges, we can expect more finger pointing from activists that consider blaming palm oil a solution.
But what’s the real solution? Cooperation and capacity building.
As UNEP states:
“No single country has yet formulated the perfect response, but many are making progress in different aspects of managing the risks of wildfires … the greatest potential for coherent and consistent improvement in fire management is through continued international interaction and exchange, joint problem solving, and sharing experiences in wildfire management and research”.
It’s well understood that Indonesia’s fire-fighting capacity is lacking. If Western governments really want to prevent deforestation in Indonesia, perhaps supporting fire-prevention and fire suppression activities – rather than trade bans – would be the perfect place to start.