Indonesia’s climate crisis: Is the world still looking away?

An Indonesian soldier tries to extinguish a forest fire on peat land at Ogan Komering Ilir in South Sumatra, Indonesia, on September 12, 2015. Image: China News

By India Thorogood

“Indonesia is burning – so why is the world looking away?” Late last year those words shone a small spotlight on a massive climate crisis – now it looks like they could be depressingly relevant again.

2015’s forest fires destroyed huge swathes of rainforest, killed at least 19 people and on many days emitted more co2 than the whole of the US. But shocking though that is, images of the fires or the thousands affected by them weren’t splashed across United Kingdom newspapers or much other media in the West, including New Zealand.

Plenty of us who adoringly admire the beauty and diversity of rainforests on TV didn’t know anything about the damage being done to one of the world’s most beautiful and important rainforests.

Lives and wildlife at risk in Indonesian forest fires. Image: Greenpeace
Lives and wildlife at risk in Indonesian forest fires. Image: Greenpeace

Not everyone was looking away. Indonesian campaigners showed what could be achieved when attention was brought to the crisis locally – they spearheaded petitions and protests, making sure that the president of Indonesia brought in ambitious plans to protect peatland and rainforests.

Meanwhile, other local people were taking action on the ground, joining volunteer fire fighting teams and building dams to stop the spread of the fires.

The action taken in Indonesia has been amazing, but it can’t just be left to Indonesians alone to sit up and pay attention.

A root cause of forest fires is palm oil production, which is in the toothpaste we brush on our teeth every morning or the chocolate bars we crave, meaning we have a responsibility to act too.

Household brands have for decades been buying palm oil from companies clearing Indonesia’s forests. Even after last year’s fires, brands like Johnson & Johnson, Pepsico and Colgate-Palmolive are still dragging their feet about only buying from companies that produce palm oil without destroying rainforests.

Meanwhile, we’ve got word that Indonesia is ablaze again.

So the question is, is the world still looking away? Well, the UK media might be, but you and I don’t have to. Together we can send a message to big brands: your customers don’t want any part in rainforest destruction.

Instead we want protection for the hundreds of thousands of local people threatened by air pollution, protection for the wild orangutans living in this area, the thousands of species struggling to survive more and more every year.

Reputation matters to these companies. Pepsico spends millions on getting Britney Spears to advertise their products and Colgate & Johnson & Johnson get big name actors to promote their brands.

But the voices of hundreds of thousands of us can drown out big newspapers and TV ads. We can let them know that the best advert for their brand is a squeaky clean rainforest reputation.

This time we have to show big brands that the world is watching whether they protect or plunder Indonesia’s rainforests.

We can show them that we won’t stop watching over Indonesia’s rainforest until they are protected for good.

India Thurogood is digital campaigner of Greenpeace UK. @indiathorogood

A satellite image of forest fires in Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo. Image:
A satellite image of forest fires in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo on 22 September 2015. Image:
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