Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Too Big to Fail

Last week I was invited to Aceh, along with several other colleagues with whom I worked in 2005 in the early days of reconstruction, to a commemorative celebration honoring the 10 year anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I am not the only one who is too disgusted to go.
I know what I will hear.  I know I will be expected to smile, and thank the current Governor for inviting me, and look down demurely when he praises the work the NGOs did to bring the province back from the brink of disaster and make it the vibrant, positive, humane and safe place it is today. . . I am not going because if I have to hear that drivel I fear I will vomit.  My colleagues agree; most are declining the invitation.  It is, so sadly, all a farce.

Shortly after this invitation I received an email from our Australian colleague Michael Bachelard, who met and traveled with JMD this past April when covering the legislative elections.  I’d first gotten in touch with him because of all the international journalists reporting on the ravages and dire global consequences of palm oil’s destruction of the Aceh rainforest, he was by far the most eloquent, thorough, and passionate.  His beat isn’t just palm oil, however, and the Sydney Morning Herald has pulled him in many directions this past year.

I knew he was returning to Aceh this month to do a story on the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, which happened on Boxing Day (December 26) 2004.  If you’ve been reading this blog you know that I’ve been urging any and all media outlets to take an honest look at Aceh and examine whether, 10 years later, the province is truly “better” than it was before the tsunami, in terms of quality of life, equal access, and economic prosperity for more than just the wealthy and the multi-national corporations.

Michael’s email included an apology for not being able to spend any time in his articles discussing palm oil, or how cocoa was “relevant,” although he was astute enough to cover topics such as “empty housing and personal stories of the wave, misgovernance, sharia law, environmental doom and electoral misbehavior.”

I think that Michael’s email was the final missile in a depressing barrage I’d been receiving all week that has me convinced, sadly, that the entitles responsible for the most horrific things on the planet these days, are, in the final analysis, to big to fail.

Take four seemingly separate events:

There is new focus on the continuing horror story of jade mining in Myanmar and how corporate interests trump the rights of marginalized groups.  I read this (and blogged about it a few days ago) and was struck by the sheer enormity of the problem—not the HIV/AIDS epidemic that will soon spread all over the country, but the seemingly insurmountable issue that is the profitability of the Jade market in China.

Freeport, the world’s largest copper mine in Paupua, Indonesia, is “sponsoring” an exhibit of sculpture and jewelry by the Kamoro, a tribe the company basically wiped out in what is seen as one of the world' worst examples of environmental destruction and genocide.  But a significant number of southeast Asia’s wealthy elites are attending the show, to ooh and ahh over the “exquisitely made” handcrafted pieces available. Those little brown people.  So clever.  Much is made over the “champion” of the Komoro, Mr Kal Muller, a transplant who’s acted not necessarily as humanitarian advocate but as PR marketing firm for those Komoro who are still living.  He’s an employee of Freeport (A US firm), after all.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine him as painfully torn between the irreversible damage his company has done to this group’s culture and homeland, and his need to keep his job so that he can at least squeeze a couple of bucks (and permission) from this lumbering behemoth of a company in order to preserve what little space they have left in this now-wasteland.

Searching the database of donors, including USAID, who are  funding large projects in and around Aceh, I notice that international subcontractors are being awarded mega-sums to establish either “sustainable palm oil practices” or assist with “palm oil biofuel projects.” Nowhere is it ever mentioned that any significant funding is to be spent to reduce or control palm oil plantation expansion, or to seriously look at ways to limit the environmental catastrophes that are being caused due to plantations’ current methods of operation.  This would make sense, considering President Jokowi’s interpretation of his own energy policy to mean “capitalize on every natural resource we have and increase production.” (Interestingly, he hasn’t yet noticed the disparity between his “let’s stop deforestation, save the peat bogs, and control palm oil in Aceh” rhetoric and his “economic expansion at any cost” battle cry.  Or else he doesn’t care.)

A recent Bloomberg report on “palm oil futures” criticizing the new Indonesian regulations for mixing palm biodiesel with other fuels wept that this would severely hurt the price of palm oil.
Indonesia plans to increase biodiesel blending to 20 percent in 2016, requiring more than 8 million tons of palm oil, according to the Energy Ministry. . . .  The government is committed to expanding palm biodiesel, Hari Priyono, secretary general at Agriculture Ministry, told reporters yesterday. . . . "If Indonesia ignores its (biodiesel) mandate completely, the palm oil industry will face a crisis in the last half of 2015," Mistry said.
Most of the articles I read regarding palm oil are, in fact, from the commodities side.  Palm oil is so huge, so important in the international market with respect to making people money, that it is no longer pertinent to even allude to its horrific effects. That just isn’t important to anyone except the “activists.”  And what do they know anyway?  Buncha spoiled little punks.

But all these things: the invitation, the jade mining, the Komoro, Big Palm . . . they got me thinking . . . about what good people do when their backs are against a wall. How do concerned and committed individuals and groups respond to entities that are “too big to fail?”

What would the Komoro do if Kal Muller did not convince Freeport to be interested in their culture and sponsor at least a tiny way for what’s left of them to make money? If we are realists we will see that Freeport is not going away and the Komoro are not coming back.  So is it bad to try and provide some type of compensation to those remaining even if it is “blood money?”

If the world’s large donors are staffed by people who truly understand that carbon emissions and deforestation are vitally important, then they have to develop plans that can address this in pragmatic ways—and that means catering to the interests of the extraordinarily immoral entities that got us into this mess in the first place.  When fighting a war for your freedom, said Marx, use the tools of the oppressor. They will eventually wear him down.

I’m not so sure.

So once there is a mess (Freeport, palm oil, HIV jade) what is the best thing to do about it?  “Go away” is not working.  Can we make it smaller?  Maybe, but how much smaller is smaller enough?  Should we just be addressing the fallout?  Like in the Kachin state, what is needed is a methadone program and street outreach for IV drug users to learn how to clean their needles.  But in a way, that just reinforces the strength of the jade industry that sucked them into this vortex in the first place.

All over the world, what we are doing to the enormous creatures that have harmed us, altered our food, poisoned our water, screwed around with our oxygen, eliminated animal species, and displaced people with no voice, what we are doing is helping them survive.  Because they have created a different physical, social and economic reality from the one we knew before they came, and now much of our survival depends on theirs.  So we become complicit, and talk about “sustainable” palm oil and “area-sensitive expansion” and fair labor standards and artisanal marketing and eco-tourism.  And we sugar-coat the mismanagement of billions of dollars that could have been the salvation of a province but instead plunged it further into poverty and pseudo-religious extremism.

I know it’s a reality but I still want to vomit.  Good thing I won’t be going to Aceh.

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