Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Indonesia’s ‘smoking guns’: Drugs, tobacco and forest fires

What’s with the media frenzy over Schapelle Corby after her recent parole on Feb. 7 and release on Feb. 10?
She’s merely a half-pretty, former Gold Coast beauty student and drug mule from a family with known offenses linked to marijuana, who tried to smuggle 4.2 kilograms of high-grade cannabis. She received parole as she had served two-thirds of her sentence and applied. Other foreigners have done so in the past. Renae Lawrence, one of the Bali 9 will also do the same soon.

Nevertheless, Corby’s release on parole drew the ire of Indonesian politicians and anti-narcotics groups. The latter, for example, lambasted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for granting her a five-year cut from her sentence after she appealed for clemency. He did so after a recommendation from a Supreme Court judge who noted that Corby had been treated for mental illness. However, the anti-narcotics groups said the decision sent out the wrong message to drug traffickers.

The Corby media circus also distracts from the real, serious issue of a drug addiction crisis in Indonesia. According to National Anti-narcotics Movement (Gannas) statistics, 1.3 million Indonesians between the ages of 10 and 19 have experimented with drugs, while over 570,000 people in the same age group regularly abuse narcotics. And that could be just the tip of the iceberg.

The issue of illegal drugs, however, are only one of Indonesia’s “smoking guns”. The second is tobacco.

Despite anti-smoking moves in recent years from the government, Indonesia is still home to nearly 70 million smokers, the third largest in the world. While cigarette consumption is declining worldwide, we are in the throes of an uncontrolled tobacco habit: Indonesia is the new “Marlboro country”. The industry is thriving and international tobacco companies are able to operate in ways they haven’t been able to in the US for over 40 years.

According to Sudibyo Markus, head of a smoking reduction team set up by the Indonesian Tobacco Control Network, “cigarette consumption is 302 billion sticks per year now”. This makes the per capita consumption of every Indonesian, including babies, 1,250 cigarettes per year.

Babies smoking? Yup. Almost 35 percent of children smoke before the age of 10. Shocking.

The government has tried to discourage smoking by imposing various prohibitions (ciggy ads before 10 p.m., under-17s from buying cigarettes), and banning smoking in public areas. These bans are mostly ignored. The cigarette industry generates revenue, so the government’s anti-smoking efforts seem decidedly ambivalent. Indonesia is one of the 10 countries that haven’t signed or ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), while 170 countries have.

Indonesia’s third “smoking gun” is of course smoke from annual forest fires.

Currently the forest and peat fires originating in Riau are at the highest levels since the 2013 haze emergency caused by large-scale burning in many parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan, which affected much of Southeast Asia: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and even southern Thailand.

Indonesia has yet to ratify an ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

This year, 55,000 Riau residents are suffering from haze-related illnesses: acute respiratory infections, pneumonia, skin and eye problems. Flights as well as daily activities are disrupted, causing heavy financial losses.

What is it about Riau that makes it so vulnerable to fires? It’s home to major palm oil and pulp and paper producers! Many belong to, or supply companies that are household names both in Indonesia and overseas.

Aha, now we’re getting somewhere! Around 87 percent of the fire alerts across Sumatra for March 4-11 are in Riau and according to data from the Forestry Ministry, half of them fall within land managed by palm oil, pulpwood and logging concessions.

During investigations over the last month, police have named 60 suspects in 40 cases of forest fires in eight regencies and cities in Riau province. Shoot on sight orders have been issued for offenders resisting arrest. But are they really the ones to blame? Surely it’s the big palm oil and pulp companies that should be held responsible.

The fires return every year because it’s the cheapest and fastest way of paving the way for new plantations. Naturally, these profit oriented companies disregard the law and operate even in areas pledging zero-burning policies. It’s cheap and fast for them, but everyone else has to pay the price. Nice.

Indonesia is now a G20 country with an almost US$1 trillion economy. But it’s also the world’s worst forestry sector offender.  So shameful.

Cheap and versatile, at least 50 percent of products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil, including food, cosmetics and cleaning products. We buy these products and without realizing it, we are contributing to the problem. But as consumers, we can change that and vote with our wallets. Think before you buy! Buy only green products that use sustainable palm oil.

I have no love for tobacco companies, but now I reckon palm oil companies have overtaken tobacco companies as being the most dangerous. They do widespread and long-lasting damage to the environment, the health of millions of people, and kill wildlife.

Unlike smokers or drug addicts, the effect of the fires is not a matter of personal choice. People don’t choose to breath the smoke the forest fires create.  It’s a kind of “mass assault” but the law turns a blind eye maybe because they get paid off? Ah, the good old collusion, corruption and nepotism (KKN)!

The law really needs to get tough on companies that are behind the fires, and revoke their permits. Both the companies as well as those who willfully burn rain forests should be heavily punished. Jailed for life and making the offenders plant trees for 10 years with their bare hands.

All this is very serious stuff, and has dire consequences for Indonesia’s future generations, and should be constantly exposed in the media to raise public awareness of the severity of the problems.

But the combo of a photogenic Aussie girl, drugs and a judicial system in a foreign country which has a reputation for being corrupt and unjust, is irresistible. It’s so much more fun and “newsworthy”, isn’t it boys?

The writer is the author of Julia’s Jihad.

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