In brief... DTE 71 - November 2006

Down to Earth No. 71, November 2006


Worst forest fires since 1997

This year's forest fires and resulting smoke-smog pollution have again caused havoc over large areas of Kalimantan and Sumatra. Dry conditions meant that the fires spread rapidly and continued into November, before rains started easing the situation. The choking 'haze', which is expected to take a heavy toll on local people's health, spread to neighbouring countries, prompting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to apologise to them. An estimated 1000 orang utans have been killed in the fires, many of which are set by plantation developers to clear land, despite a ban on the practice. (See also oil palm article, above.)

More peatland is affected this time, according to scientists, meaning that a huge amount of CO2 will be released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. One expert said that Indonesia's peatland contain 21% of the world's land-based carbon, much of which could be released into the atmosphere in a few decades, unless action is taken. Peatland fires are difficult to put out - they can burn deep underground and continue for months. During the 1997-98 fires more than 700 million tonnes of CO2 was released, according to the ADB. (Khaleej Times Online 26/Oct/06; Reuters 6/Nov/06). For background on the 1997-8 fires see DTE 35 and DTE 36-37.)


Special autonomy fails on poverty in Papua

Five years after Jakarta passed Papua's special autonomy law, Papuans have yet to benefit. A Papuan member of Indonesia's Regional Representatives Council (DPD), Ibo Ikin, and Papuan sociologist Agus Sumule have both called for funds channelled to Papua under the special autonomy arrangements to be audited. Agus Sumule accused Papua's two governors (of Papua province and of the widely-opposed 'West Irian Jaya' province set up by Jakarta in 2003) of using large amounts of funding to "finance their corrupt administration" instead of distributing it to fund district and municipality budgets.

General dissatisfaction with special autonomy in Papua was confirmed by an EU-funded survey, conducted by the Indonesian NGOs SNUP and Kemitraan. Sixty per cent of the 323 respondents from six districts in Papua said they had no confidence that special autonomy would result in any improvement in their living conditions; 76% said special autonomy was not being well implemented and 62% said the local government structure was either totally or hardly capable of implementing the special autonomy law.

A new publication by Father Neles Tebay, Interfaith Endeavours for Peace in West Papua, states that Indonesia's government has "no intention of implementing the special autonomy law", and lists the absence of a consistent policy on Papua among the threats to peace. In September last year, a joint statement by Papua's religious leaders said: "We have witnessed ourselves how special autonomy has failed to improve the plight of Papuan communities." Also last year, World Bank figures put 40% of Papuans below the poverty line, despite increased inflows of funds under special autonomy. Mass protests against the giant copper and gold mine operated by US-UK multinational Freeport-Rio Tinto earlier this year are linked to poverty. The stark reality is that very little of the wealth generated by this operation reaches local Papuans, while they must bear the negative health, environmental and human rights impacts. (Jakarta Post 19/Oct/06; Survey summarised in Tapol Bulletin 184, October 2006; Interfaith Endeavours for Peace in West Papua, Mission, 2006; DTE 68)


Call for ban on GM trees

Hundreds of organisations from around the world have signed a letter to the United Nations calling for a ban on genetically modified trees. The letter supports the position adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 8), which recommended a precautionary approach and recognised uncertainties over the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM trees. Highlighting concerns over the narrow focus of current research, potential impacts on biodiversity, indigenous communities and rural women, the joint letter calls on the UN to move forward from the precautionary approach to a mandatory decision declaring an immediate ban on the release of GM trees. The full letter is at:

The UK-based NGO, GMWatch, thinks the GM industry may be looking to turn November's United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Nairobi into an opportunity to promote GM technology as the next big solution to climate change, despite COP 8's cautious approach. Fast-growing GM trees may be pushed as means of creating instant 'carbon sinks' - large tree plantations that can allow countries, businesses and people to 'offset' their CO2 emissions.

China is the only country so far with plantations of GM trees. Although Indonesia is listed as one of several countries developing GM tree technology, there has been no information on this since the late 1990s. A December 2004 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, names the company Monfori Nusantara Indonesia, created in 1996, as being "involved in mass production of tissue cultures of Tectona grandis, Acacia and Eucalyptus for field trial establishment and commercialization".

According to forestry researcher Chris Lang, the US-based seed producer, Monsanto, set up Monfori Nusantara in 1996 together with ForBio, an Australian tree biotech company. Several reports stated that Monfori was planting GM trees, although the company denied this. During 1999, ForBio went bankrupt and Monsanto sold its shares in Monfori. By the end of 1999, Monsanto had dropped all its involvement in forestry.

(Source: Preliminary review of biotechnology in forestry, including genetic modification, FAO, December 2004
Genetically Modified Trees: The Ultimate Threat To Forests, Chris Lang, December 2004
See also: Grain, Seedling, July 2006 at; 14/Oct/06 at
See also DTE 49 'biotech trees' box for more background.)