What's happening Wednesday

Whats Happening Wednesday? Hazy relationships: how the links between politics and big business are threatening Indonesia’s peatlands

In recent months news media around the world have been reporting on the health risked posed by forest fires, causing smoke to drift from Sumatra to Malaysia and Singapore. These forest fires are exacerbated by the draining of peatland forests, which are cleared to grow oil palm.
Palm oil is used in food, cooking, cosmetics and increasingly as a supposedly environmentally friendly fuel for vehicles, both here in Southeast Asia and in the West.
Draining the peatland and drying out the land leaves the remaining forest increasingly vulnerable to fires. The massive fires that result cause huge swathes of haze that is carried in whichever direction the wind takes it.
All this is bad news for public health, wildlife and the climate. The peatland forests are extremely valuable for wildlife and store vast amount of carbon, which, when burned, turns into the potent greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when released. This creates carbon emissions from combustion of oil palm as a vehicle fuel that are many times greater than those through burning fossil fuels.
Now, a new paper by the University of Malaya based on a series of over 100 interviews in the oil palm industry is arguing that the fires and the boom of oil palm are the result of political corruption in Indonesia (this paper can be read in full through Wetlands here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13157-013-0423-z).
The paper’s author says that corrupt relationships (or “patronage networks”) between industry and politicians allow big business to flout environmental regulation and to influence who is granted the right to clear land, regardless of whether they have the correct permits.
As part of global efforts to stop climate change (peatland is one of the most carbon-rich soil types) Norway recently pledged $1 billion to Indonesia, in return for a guarantee that exploitation of peatlands would halt for two years. Varkkey argues that this guarantee has been undermined by the corrupt ties between business and politics. A Ministry of Agriculture instruction from 2007 effectively also temporarily halted all new concessions on peatland. Yet Varkkey points out that peatland continues to be drained and converted to oil palm despite various regulations restricting most or all of this kind of conversion – more than a quarter of all Indonesian oil palm concessions are on peatland.
This analysis highlights some of the political obstacles that exist in ensuring the effectiveness of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and related national initiatives in Indonesia, to avoid further endangering the archipelago’s biodiversity.