Is Indonesia’s fire crisis connected to the palm oil in our snack food?

Traveling from California to Indonesia’s Sumatra island recently was a startling journey between two lands engulfed in flames. Although a world away from each other, these two historic fire events are connected through the cause and effect of climate change and a broken system of international commodity production that will take all of us at both ends of the supply chain to fix. This will necessitate holding Western companies accountable for the consequences of their global operations.

The conflagrations raging out of control across Sumatra and Borneo are a global scale environmental and human rights emergency, but the players involved, from the Indonesian government, commodity producers and traders, to Western snack food companies, have so far largely failed to connect the dots to strike at the core of the problem.

If you have not flown over the region recently, it is truly difficult to grasp the immense scale and extreme implications of this tragic situation. Malaysia has begun evacuating citizens from Indonesia because the risks of prolonged exposure are so severe. Flights are cancelled daily as airports across the region shut down and in Singapore schools are being closed because the air quality is so bad it is a serious threat to human health. People are literally dying because they cannot breathe.

But the smoke crisis is not just a regional issue. The widespread burning of tropical rainforests and peatlands to develop pulpwood and palm oil plantations is one of the largest sources of carbon pollution occurring in the world today. It is estimated that the fires are producing more carbon pollution than the entire daily emissions of the United States.

According to an analysis of World Resources Institute data between the 5 and 13 of September, which is when we were in Indonesia, of the hundreds of fires burning in Sumatra, 37% were at that point on pulpwood concessions, most of which supply the logging giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). Most of the rest originate in or near palm oil plantations, many of which are connected through the big palm oil traders that purchase from them to the supply chains of international food companies, including those dubbed the Snack Food 20.

Many of these fires are a direct result of the industrial manipulation of the landscape for plantation development. Palm oil giants are accused of displacing local communities from their land and livelihood, opening up massive peat swamps with road building and forest clearance and installing extensive networks of canals. The lowering of the water table by peat canals dries out the land and allows fires to burn in areas where they would never naturally occur.

Companies like APP are quick to accuse small farmers and villagers of lighting many of the fires. Even if that is true, the displacement of communities and the drainage of peatlands by large scale plantation companies is ultimately responsible for the allowing these fires to take place. Communities whose forest-dependent subsistence livelihoods have been disrupted by plantation development often turn to clearing what land they can find, using the only cost-effective method available to them: fire.

Solving this crisis is not about fighting fires. Extinguishing thousands of peat blazes across thousands of square miles of remote tropical landscape is hugely expensive and ultimately unfeasible. The only real solution is to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

The first and most basic change needed is a total halt to plantation development on peatlands and remaining natural forests. Peat swamp soil is the result of thousands of years of accumulation of organic material. Left alone, it is one of the most effective landscapes on earth for sequestering carbon. But when drained and ignited, it releases a carbon bomb into the atmosphere.

This will require the Indonesian government to stop issuing permits on peat and for big brands to stop buying from bad actors that refuse to change.

The Indonesian government must aggressively prosecute offending companies. Permits for plantation development are granted at a screaming deal to companies that make large profits from the privilege. Using fire to clear forests is already illegal under Indonesian law, but enforcement has been so lax that no one fears punishment. This means revoking permits, arresting executives and levying serious fines.

It is crucial for all major brands that source palm oil from Indonesia – especially laggards like PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz that have yet to adopt truly responsible palm oil commitments – to finally break the link between their products and this destruction by eliminating third party suppliers that refuse to change.

It is clear the market and investors are the main forces these companies answer to and recent campaign successes have shown the power of consumer outcry to bring about corporate commitments on these issues. Consumers in the West bear a responsibility to exercise their influence to demand these companies pass strong policies and implement them fully.

From the wildfires in California to rising sea levels in New York, we stand to lose as much here from out of control climate change as those suffocating right now in Southeast Asia. Linked through global economics and a shared atmosphere, we must work together to do the hard work necessary to stop the downward spiral these fires represent.

This article was amended on 23 October 2015 to clarify the dates from which the data was drawn. It was further amended on 27 October 2015 to clarify the percentage of fires on pulpwood concessions at the time of the contributor’s field trip to Indonesia.

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