Heat and sawdust

The fires in Brazil and in Indonesia speak volumes of what happens when humans try to make a living by killing forests and neglecting the poor

Published: Thursday 30 April 1998

In Brazil's Amazon, in the 30 years following the 1960s, the forests retreated before the onslaught of a government determined to hand over a land without people to its people who did not have land. Huge tracts of forest land in the Amazon vanished, sandwiched between the sawmills and the fires in the area.

In Indonesia, the smog has come back again today because plantation companies set large areas of forest land on fire rather than hack their way through them. The Indonesian government also pursued a policy of handing over huge tracts of land to its people. Both governments blame what has happened on El Nio. But actually, its human greed.

In Brazil, nobody has any regard for laws and regulations. Yet Brazilians always defend the rapid deforestation in their country by pressing the point that 85 per cent of the Amazon jungle is still covered by trees. Their argument is that preserving forests is a rich country's luxury and commercial exploitation of forests a poor country's need.

Loss of biodiversity apart, the rapid loss of green cover is hardly in the interest of a country. Not even in its economic interests. In some countries like Cambodia for example, the forests paid for the costs of the civil war. Both the Khmer Rouge and the government have been known to finance their war operations through commercial logging. Over 50 per cent of the forest in Cambodia has disappeared in the last three decades.

Governments also like to target the poor. Poverty and population growth are often blamed for deforestation in Nepal, Peru, Bolivia and India. According to establi-shed notions the countryside surrounding fast growing cities in Asia and Africa is rapidly denuded because the poor use wood for fuel. What is conveniently forgotten are the bad policies and obsolete agricultural techniques pursued in those countries. These lead to pressure on forest land as it is required for farming. If farming operations became more intensive, for example in Brazil, they could reduce the amount of land that a poor family needs to reclaim from the forest, to feed itself.

However, the most important problem in Brazil is the nature of landholdings. Big landowners have cornered most of the land. Therefore there is a desperate need for land reforms. In the absence of this the poor are forced to move into the forest. Reports in the media tend to gloss over this aspect of the problem and tend to blame either the poor or El Nio for the problem.

Deforestation in Indonesia is usually blamed upon the small and marginal farmers, the poor who have been encouraged to relocate to heavily forested areas such as Kalimantan and Sumatra. But whereas small farmers burn trees to clear forest land for farming, the big plantation companies scorch the earth to fulfill their goals.

While the Brazilian government is abandoning policies which encourage deforestation the laws in Indonesia are still heavily tipped in favour of plantation firms. The government imposes a high levy on unprocessed logs. This acts as a subsidy for the wood processing industry as it keeps the domestic timber prices well below international rates. But this also encourages inefficient utilisation of wood. Even worse, there is tremendous transparency in the way permits have been handed out for logging. Friends of the President and his family top the list of beneficiaries.

Despite the international attention and criticism for the handling of the forest fires the Indonesian government has failed to restrain the killer smog from coming back.

The parched earth, dry after a year of El Nio induced drought, has erupted into flames again in southeast Asia raising fears that a choking wave of smog could smother the region's economy as it did in the autumn of 1997. Six nations were forced to close down their airports and their tourism industry. There were also widespread health problems. A paroxyism of rage whiplashed Suharto but with little effect. Foreign diplomats and executives fled the area rather than brave the smog.

But little has changed. After El Nio, it is the poor who lack both the physical and financial resources to cause havoc, who are being blamed for the disaster that is about to enfold once again. Poor governance is proving environmentally destructive in both South America and South Asia.

It is vital that developing countries should stop targetting their poor and think of targetting policies which promote deforestation. These are the kind of policies which also generate corruption, promote inequity, hold back economic growth and destroy the rule of law. The poor are the potential backbone of a nation's prosperity.

It is not right to blame either them or nature for the travails nations face. Rather the nation states should look inwards at the policies which force the poor to live on the fringes of the environment and drastically reform such policies. That is if they are serious about trying to solve the problem. Today for no fault of their own the Yanomani Indians stare destruction in the face as the fires refuse to die down in Brazil and Indonesia is once again in for a smog and a smog-induced crop failure, where the worst hit will again be the poor.

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