Indonesian Forests Burn Amid Student Protests

Burned forests throughout Indonesia show the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture. (Wikimedia Commons)

Burned forests throughout Indonesia show the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture. (Wikimedia Commons)

Almost 2,000 wildfires consumed Indonesian forests in late September, threatening dozens of endangered species and dispersing clouds of hazardous smoke across the entire southeastern Pacific. 

Blanketing Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and southern Thailand, the smoke reduced visibility and elevated the nations’ levels of PM2.5, tiny airborne particulate, to dangerous levels. In fear of widespread respiratory problems, both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments closed thousands of public schools, affecting millions.

Forest fires are a yearly occurrence for Indonesian farmers who employ the archaic slash-and-burn technique to quickly clear large swathes of trees. However, this year’s forest fires exceed the damage of previous years and reduced 800,000 acres to burned wasteland. The fires have also crippled national parks. 

According to the Associated Press, the Indonesian police responded by arresting around 230 people, mostly farmers and small plantation owners. In an unprecedented move, Indonesian authorities have also sealed-off 49 plantations for strict investigation of the origins of fires.  

Many Indonesians argue that the government needs to end decades of tacit acceptance of the plantation companies igniting the fires.

Uncompromising enforcement against the palm oil and paper companies who are responsible for many of the corporate-led slash-and-burn events recently surfaced as one of the demands Indonesian university student protesters have given to President Joko Widodo. Analysts say that the companies whose lands contain a majority of the forest fires for the past four years have so far faced no serious repercussions or threats of license revocations. 

Student protestors categorized the continuation of corporate-led forest fires as one of many manifestations of Widodo’s shortcomings as a president. As thousands of forest acres burned, protesters clashed with riot police and scaled the fence surrounding the national legislative complex in Jakarta. Police retaliation included tear gas and water cannons, resulting in the confirmed deaths of two university students, as well as the injury of 265 protestors and 39 police officers.  

The introduction of a revised law earlier in the month that would strip away certain powers of the Corruption Eradication Committee, including the ability to wiretap public officials suspected of wrongdoing, instigated the protests. The revised law drew angry student protestors from many parts of Indonesia to the capital. Obed Kresna Widyapratistha, a student at Gadjah Mada University, expressed his disillusionment by saying that “Jokowi… compromised too much with the New order generals… political parties… [and] the political oligarchs” in Indonesia, suggesting that ineffective government intervention in the recent forest fires might reflect a larger-scale corruption.