The Fires Decimating Rainforests Can Only Be Stopped if We Side With Communities over Corporations | Opinion

Across the globe, tropical rainforests are burning. Even as the Amazon continues to burn, the rainforest in the Congo Basin –– the second-largest rainforest on Earth –– is on fire. And again in Indonesia, the third-largest and some of the oldest rainforests in the world are going up in smoke.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the skies turned black from smoke. In Indonesia, the toxic haze –– a dense and unrelenting noxious mix –– is turning the sky a vibrant red and threatens the lives of 10 million children, along with countless endangered species that call the forest home. This is the worst fire season in Indonesia since 2015, when more than 2.6 million hectares of forest, peat, and other land burned, an area roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts. In 2015, the haze was responsible or the premature deaths of 100,000 people, according to the World Bank.

Made worse by climate change, these forest fires share a common culprit: the unrelenting expansion of industrial agriculture and development. What's worse, the burning of Indonesia's forests is a devastating, self-reinforcing loop: as the forests and carbon-rich peatlands burn, they release an enormous amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and at the same time destroy the very trees and peatlands that could absorb that carbon and safely store it underground.

Already, Indonesia is the world's fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter due to deforestation and land conversion, largely driven by the expansion of already massive palm oil and pulp and paper plantations. The forests in Indonesia –– as is true for the Congo Basin, and the Amazon as well –– are nearly all being intentionally burned to cheaply and quickly clear land for consumer commodities that line our store shelves.

And in nearly all cases, ineffective national and local government, together with investments from Western brands and financiers, have all but lit the match.

Two of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world –– Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and APRIL––have been accused as major culprits in the fires in Indonesia, as have a dozen major palm companies including the notorious Indofood-related Salim Group and Korindo, a major palm oil, timber and rubber company. According to a recent report from Greenpeace, an area larger than Singapore burned in a plantation concession linked to Sinar Mas/Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) between 2015 and 2018. This concession, which had the largest total burned area across Indonesia, only received an administrative sanction for replanting in previously burned areas. Companies are burning forests and land year after year, with little recourse.

What's more, a new report conducted by a coalition of Indonesian organizations and the Environmental Paper Network has found that Asia Paper & Pulp (APP) is involved in hundreds of conflicts with communities across the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The research results show that in just five provinces of Indonesia, at least 107 villages or communities are in conflict with APP affiliates or its suppliers.

Thanks to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), science has confirmed what indigenous people and history have long shown to be true: Strong and organized local and indigenous communities are a key defense against industrial destruction.

Indigenous communities are defending their lands not just for themselves, but for the rest of us as well. According to the World Bank, despite only stewarding 22 percent of the world's land, Indigenous territories protect 80 percent of the planet's biodiversity. It's a staggering fact, and clearly shows that Indigenous and frontline communities have been successfully protecting their lands for generations, sometimes even at the cost of their own lives.

It is imperative that we support Indigenous and frontline communities in their fight to protect both their lands and their ways of life but also the vast majority of the world's biodiversity. By protecting those that protect the forest, we can slow the worst impacts of climate change.

The Indonesian government must enforce its laws and hold companies to account, but we in the West have little influence there. We do, however, have a direct link to the Western banks, financiers, and brands that provide money and a market for the commodities made at the expense of these forests. Financiers like BlackRock, JP Morgan Chase, and MUFG are pouring money into destructive projects, and brands like Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Disney and more are still not doing enough to end deforestation in their supply chains.

The fires that are burning now are inescapable, but a global outpouring of support for Indigenous and frontline communities, together with strong, consistent public pressure calling out the banks and financiers profiting off this destruction can stop them from happening again.

Lindsey Allen is Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.