Friday, May 05, 2006

NIMBY Chinese and the Plunder of Indonesia's Rainforests

This seriously makes me sick. Apparently the Indonesian government has gone ahead and signed a deal with the Chinese government to trade off the fabulous rainforests of Kalimantan and Sumatra. The forests would be chopped down and the wood used to service the construction boom in China (especially given the 2008 Beijing Olympics). In return China seeks to develop palm oil plantations there to supply the growing world demand for palm oil in detergents, soaps, etc. Ironically China is putting in place an initiative to save its own forests, even as it plunders rain forests in South-east Asia. A number of Indonesia based bloggers have written about it here, here and here.

I live in a country where the level of thoughtless, wasteful consumption shocks me on a regular basis. What shocks me even more is that I seem to be morphing into one of those thoughtless, wasteful consumers. I use disposable plates and cutlery on occasion, use non-organic, polluting detergent for my clothes, liberally use paper towels in my kitchen and generate more trash on a weekly basis than my family of four in India would in a month. My boyfriend chides me for my carelessness in leaving lights on when I leave the apartment, something I would have never done in India. I live in the midst of a quasi-desert, and yet when I wash dishes, the tap runs continously.

Somehow, it seems very easy to be seduced and sucked into wanton wastefulness. Especially when there is no incentive to act otherwise. And especially when this very callousness with resources is seen as one of the perks of leading a first-world lifestyle. And now, more and more people around the world want a taste of this American life, and all the rampant consumption that invariably accompanies it. And so the Chinese government scours the world for wood to build its Olympics showcase apartments and feed the demands of the growing Chinese middle class.

Is it fair to judge them? According to Mahathir Mohammad ex-Prime Minister of Malaysia, Western governments are hypocrites in asking developing countries to protect their forests, when Western nations did no such thing for their own environment in their scramble for industrialization. And for those living in poverty, the romanticising of nature by the intellectual elite can be very cruel.

Certainly Indonesia could do as Germany did, embark on an ambitious programme of reforestation, once they became acutely aware of the ravages wrought on the environment by all the steel mills and coal furnaces that came up during Germany's great industrialization drive. Germany's afforestation drive is a remarkable success story, as they managed to increase their forest cover from 6 per cent in the middle of the 20th century to more than 30 per cent at present. Not without its problems as often the hardwood oak and beech trees were replaced by softwood trees unsuitable for local conditions. And there's a certain amount of biodiversity that has been permanently lost in Germany and cannot be replenished.

If this is the case for Germany, imagine how much worse is it for Indonesian rainforests, that are home to an incredible variety of species of plants and animals. And unlike Germany, which is unique in the widespread environmental consciousness of its population, most forests cleared around the world have never really been replenished. The North Sumatran forests chopped down to make way for Dutch colonial coffee and palm oil plantations in the late 19th and early 20th century have been irreplacably lost.

Every year, more forests in Sumatra are cleared by surreptiously setting fire to them, causing neighbouring Malaysia to suffer horrific pollution (wonder what Mahatir Mohammad has to say to that). And now, instead of checking this rampant clearing, the Indonesian government gives its official stamp of approval to the violence against its natural heritage.

I fear that it won't be long before India jumps on the bandwagon as well. After all India's always chided in the West for not growing fast enough, for being bogged down by the myriad voices of its constituents. We are told to look up to the Chinese model, one aspect of which is the pillage of the Chinese environment and the alarming growth of pollution in Chinese cities. And given that, mercifully, we do not have the diplomatic wherewithal to arm-twist South-east Asian countries, we would perhaps start devouring our own forests.

Is there an efficient solution that allows the world to have its cake and eat it too? In the case of many other environmental problems such as vehicle-generated pollution, burning cleaner fuels and newer, more efficient engines is partly the answer. Environmental challenges are the top concern at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and implementing better operating practices and technological advances to make the ports environment friendly are seen as the best ways to balance growth and the environment. In the case of the rainforests, we need to stop using virgin rainforest wood for housing and furniture, using wood from newer plantations instead. Also we need to find alternatives to palm oil in industrial uses.

But in the meanwhile, as we press for these changes in industrial practices, we can all contribute to stop what I fundamentally believe is a terrible loss for Indonesia, and indeed the world as a whole. And what's an inconsequential, irrelevant consumer like me to do, except in my own small way indicate my displeasure. By writing a blog post.

PS: What really, really breaks my heart is that all these rainforests are being destroyed for the Olympics, the most pointless waste of resources ever invented. My boyfriend and I have argued zillions of times over this, but I truly believe that apart from some much needed infrastructure additions, which the EU would have paid for anyway, Greece really got the short end of the stick with the 2004 Olympics.

It got saddled with umpteen sports venues that no one would ever use, the security paranoia meant that actual visitors were far less than projected ones, and now its saddled with a debt that would take years to pay off. For S, it's more a matter of national pride and the triumph of the Greek spirit, which I understand, but I don't think that such national glory should be attempted at any cost.

And now the Chinese government is trying to show off its new found economic might in another wasteful exercise of self-aggrandisement. And the Indonesian rainforests pay the price.


Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

"And for those living in poverty, the romanticising of nature by the intellectual elite can be very cruel."

Excellent point. There is no "correct" answer, is there?

Great post.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

i am not much of an environment-conscious man - I confess, I regularly litter beaches and hillsides I visit - but just curious: how long does it take a tropical rain forest (particularly ones with such heavy rainfall as in Indonesia) to "grow back" ... if you know what I mean ...

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Germany went from 6 to 30 percent. Wow!

I do think however Olympics and sports events do benefit cities and countries. They do jumpstart the infrastructure projects. If you look at any of the cities hosting the Olympics, it makes a lot of economic sense too. All the cities have gained economically from it. That is one reason cities bid for them. Besides, those sports facilities are used. Each bid does cover plans of what they will do with those facilities.

I so wanted to train full-time for 1500m track and field, but there is nothing back home for someone trying to do anything outside cricket and, maybe, a few others. I knew so many people who had personal bests better than Olympic first round times training in mediocre facilities. Well, you do need those and good training for that extra step. And now here, I know friends who were faster than the entire Mexican contingent and didn't make it to the Olympics!

12:35 AM  
Blogger sd said...

I did not know that bit about Germany. Neat. And as you mention, it is so true that clearing rainforest is sort of a one-way road.... that kind of ecosystem cannot be recreated back in a few decades.

And its a shame that Olympics is driving this deforestation. (Sanity_S. has a few valid points there). But at the cost of sounding a deafistist -I feel that unless the coutries having such forests do not take up a stand, for one reason or the other, these forests are going to be cleared up. And countries are always going to point to the 'developed' vs 'undeveloped' card to give a reason for this kind of a act.

I could start off on one of my favorite topics from here on about the division of the world into countries and the anachronism of this idea... but I resist ... I have already bored too many!

8:24 AM  
Blogger said...

Show them the money...why not start a campaign to save the rain forests with financial aid to the Indonesians - The US regularly subsidises its own logging industry, why not sell to China... what are the options here? There is no answer I guess...

2:02 PM  
Blogger Shreemoyee said...

I think there needs to be an event like the Olympics. Its an industry by itself but don't know what are alternatives available to stop the deforestation.

And off track, I asked this earlier in response to a comment you left on my blog, but guess you haven't seen it. Wondering if you are at Annenberg?

8:42 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

Well, I do my little bit. Try to cut down on litter and recycle in my own small way. Most Indian housewives do, you know, the way they recycle plastic bags and newspapers and use up the last drop of detergent. Stuff like that. Maybe we cannot yet do without lots of the harmful stuff, but we can be careful how we use it. And living in Hyd and Madras has certainly sensitised me to water wastage.

4:58 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Apologies for the delay in replying to comments, but I had a whirlwind week where I spent most of my time away from the computer.

Tabula, indeed there are no "correct" answers, but there are several feasible ones, that require us to re-examine our ways of doing things.

Bonatellis, to be honest, a tropical rainforest doesn't ever grow back to be what it was, that kind of plant and animal diversity is near impossible to replicate. Of course, you could have a very basic "forest" in about 20 years' time.

Sudip, I so wish I could agree with you on this. Infrastructure projects in any case would follow the needs of commuters and industry, and do not necessarily require the impetus of the Olympics. And apparently, since 1976, the only city to actually make a profit from the Olympics is Los Angeles, all others suffered heavy losses.

I think the Olympics are so inexorably tied to issues of national pride, that nations often throw conventional wisdom to the wind in bidding for them. Greece certainly did.

As for venues, Athens is now saddled with a baseball stadium. Baseball is so unknown in Greece that the Greek Olympic baseball team consisted entirely of Greek-Americans with dual citizenship! Suffice to say, that stadium will never be used for its intended purpose.

10:49 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

SD, certainly the environmental movement in Indonesia has protested the destruction of rainforests.

However, Indonesia suffers from many of the same ills that India does, with very high levels of corruption and self-serving politicians, and apparently the Indonesian situation is much worse.

By the way, I'd love to hear about your views on countries and borders.

Gypsy, when it comes to money, this is probably as sweetheart a deal that China can hope to get. Indonesian rainforests would definitely be cheaper than anything the US logging industry can come up with.

Shreemoyee, I'm not against the Olympics per se (though not very into them either), but I think it is outrageous if rainforests are being destroyed for them.

Oh, and I'm not at Annenberg!

Sue, I think Indians by virtue of our limited resources, have a far more developed culture of recycling than the US.

My big shock in coming her was the realization that no one recycles newspapers! They go directly into trash. Or that people get a gazillion plastic bags with their groceries and never reuse them, prefering to buy separate trash bags instead!

A Mexican friend of mine is horrified by the way Americans waste water, it is unthinkable just south of the border in Mexico.

Hopefully as the Indian economy grows, we still hold on to these environment-friendly practices.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Rohini said...

India too is getting worse as we get more prosperous. If you see the small stretch of mangroves in Bandra, you can barely see the little green trees that are almost completely masked by the colourful plastic packets that were thrown into the sea. Similarly, a lot of the flooding in Mumbai happens because the drains are clogged with carelessly discarded trash.

So what we gain through our economy with resources, we lose with our lack of civic sense - which can be equally harmful to the environment.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

My parents tell me though that there used to be more public trash cans and better garbage collection till the '60s.

Going by the population explosion argument, if there are more people littering, there must also be more people to pick up the litter. So the municipality can plan it out, right?

It's just education, I think. In 1993 our headmistress suddenly announced a school clean-up campaign and declared that in future all litter was to be picked up by us students. So we just stopped littering. I guess the lesson's stuck.

The recycling's a different thing. Disposable stuff is expensive here, and anyway the way my mum taught me, unspeakable horrors will overtake me if I do not reuse shopping bags, and bottles and newspapers and whathaveyou. I am not quite sure what exactly will happen if I don't but I don't want to find out!

3:33 AM  
Blogger Azahar Machwe said...

One doesnt sweat till one is staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

I think the way to start is to educate the next generation along with banning things which harm the environment.
Sounds like a stupid thing but when the times are tough, desperate measures need to be taken!

6:37 PM  
Blogger Ballbreaker said...

great post. it's true and sux that in the third world, we're catching up on all the stupid, braindead industrial toxic self-destructive societal things and think we're making progress. bah

3:58 AM  
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6:37 AM  

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