Burning for Your Dollar

You might be partly responsible for the forest fires in Indonesia — and what you can do about it.


That new futon in your bedroom may not be the innocent slab of wood you thought it was. It may be the product of a greed-driven logging industry that deliberately sets fires in the tropical forests of Indonesia — fires that have raged out of control since the summer. At least a million acres have gone up in flames on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, with some estimates over 3 million acres. And that futon purchase could be supporting damaging forestry practices.

Satellite data has pinpointed at least 176 logging and plantation concessions where fires were intentionally started to clear land for monoculture tree plantations. It’s a practice long used by the timber, palm oil, and rubber industries, but this year, fanned by El Niño’s monsoon-stopping drought conditions, the flames swept out of control. At least 17 people have died due to the smoky haze, which has choked the region, and caused tens of thousands to seek medical aid. Industrial foresters use fire to clear land in spite of a ban on the practice and often with the knowledge of government officials. In fact, bribes usually mollify nosy officials, the head of the Rubber Association of Indonesia told the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Though the Indonesian government has historically blamed peasants and small farmers for setting forest fires, officials have been forced to admit that corporations are the main culprits. In September, Indonesia’s environmental minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, released a long list of companies responsible for the fires, vowing “I never wash my hands of the land fires.”

Consumers in First World nations have dirty hands, too. We buy processed foods and cosmetics containing palm oil from plantations whose owners torched the land to make way for their crop. We buy dozens of products made from rubber and latex harvested on plantations that also burn down the forest canopy. And we buy furniture and lumber that further encourages the wholesale burning of Indonesian forests. “U.S. consumer behavior is clearly an important factor fueling the fires in Indonesia,” says Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

But American consumers looking to avoid wood from Indonesia will find that they can’t. There’s simply no way to track wood products in the U.S. back to the specific logging companies that slash and burn tropical forests in Indonesia.

“For the most part, people don’t know what kind of wood they’re buying,” says Christopher Hatch of the Rainforest Action Network, adding that often, retailers have no idea where it comes from. “If you walked into Home Depot right now, they won’t tell you what wood came from Indonesia…You’ll just get a blank look.”

But that doesn’t mean we’re not using wood from Indonesia. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the U.S. imported over $400 million in Indonesian lumber last year (out of $11 billion worth of total wood imports). And that doesn’t include wood products from other countries that contain components from Indonesian forests.

“Unlike stringent laws on labeling the country of origin and content for clothing, there are no such laws for timber products,” says Fried.

Rubbers and Oils

Though less visible in the media and in the marketplace, rubber and palm oil from Indonesia contribute heavily to destruction of vast tracts of forest land that in many cases, environmentalists say, means eviction of indigenous people who have occupied their territories for centuries. And the demand for both palm oil and rubber is growing. In 1996, the U.S. imported over $900 million worth of rubber and latex from Indonesia, more than twice as much as timber, and nearly twice as much from just four years earlier.

Though small by comparison, the palm oil industry is enjoying tremendous growth. Imports to the U.S. more than doubled from 1995 to 1996, reaching nearly $78 million in value. And the industry will continue its rapid growth — the government plans to double palm oil concessions by 2000 to over 13 million acres.

What Can Consumers Do About It?

For now, consumers lack a solid formula for developing buying habits that don’t support slash-and-burn forestry in Indonesia — or, for that matter in Brazil, where intentionally set fires are raging through the Amazon. In both regions, heavy smoke is wreaking respiratory havoc for thousands of people, and in the jungles of Southeast Asia, it is pushing orangutans and other endangered animals toward human settlements, where they are often killed.

At this point, the best consumers can do is pressure retailers to provide information on where their lumber, dining room tables, bookshelves and wall paneling come from — and, Fried says, light a fire under their congressional representatives pushing for wood labeling and certification.

Last June, the EDF launched a campaign calling for labeling of wood products by origin and species. The argument is simple: Timber labeling in the U.S. would create market incentives for sustainable forestry. We know when we’re buying clothes made in China or shoes made by exploited Third World laborers, so why not know when we buy wood harvested from Indonesian or Brazilian rainforests? In concert with ongoing efforts to educate the public about suspect forestry practices in specific nations, the EDF says labeling will lead to greater consumer choice — and facilitate efforts to track wood products to their source.

As for palm oil, since most of the world’s supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia (about 30 Malaysian companies with plantations in Indonesia were among those accused by the Indonesian government of deliberately torching forests), shoppers can simply read labels to avoid foods and cosmetics containing palm oil. It’s commonly used in soaps and lotions and is often found in fast food restaurant fryers.

Rubber may not be so easy to avoid. According to the Washington-based Rubber Manufacturers Association, close to half the rubber imported from Southeast Asia is made into tires. Other products using natural rubber include belts, shoe soles, weather stripping, and a variety of automotive and industrial products. Consumers might try to avoid virgin rubber, perhaps seeking out used tire dealers.

It may well be up to consumers in Western nations to get Indonesia’s firebugs in line, especially if their government won’t. Though it revoked timber cutting the permits of 29 fire-setting corporations, recent reports indicate that some companies are actually sparking new fires to clear land — while vast tracts on Sumatra and Borneo continue to burn. “If the government does not take decisive action to punish those responsible for the fires, especially the politically powerful companies which have acted with impunity for the last two decades,” Fried says, “fires of the sort witnessed by the world this year will continue to occur.”

Leslie Weiss is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.