Ecocide in Indonesia
Providing evidence to local and international bodies for universal jurisdiction cases in relation to environmental crime.
Undertaken in collaboration with FIBGAR (Baltasar Garzón and Manuel Vergara)
Throughout the past century, states as well as supra- and intra-state organisations have conceptualised cases of mass casualties under a more “familiar” framework of human on human violence—war, political repression, violations of human rights, war crimes, sometimes even crimes against humanity and genocide. However, as the sources of contemporary calamities are increasingly likely to be a result of environmental destruction and climate change, a new set of categories and tools must be developed to describe forms of destruction that are indirect, diffused and distributed in time and space.
The environment—whether built, natural, or the entanglement of the two—is not a neutral background against which violence unfolds. Its destruction is also not always the unintended “collateral damage” of attacks aimed at other things. Rather, environmental destruction or degradation over an extended timescale can often be the means by which belligerents pursue their aims. Though environmental violence is different than warfare, it is also entangled with it in multiple ways; it is often both the consequence of conflict and a contributing factor in the spread and aggravation of state violence.
“Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”
(Polly Higgins’s proposal for the Rome Statute)
In 2015, fires in the Indonesian territories Kalimantan and Sumatra consumed over 21,000 square kilometers of forest and peat lands. Fumes from about 130,000 local sources combined into a massive cloud, a few hundred kilometers long and a few kilometers thick. It contained more carbon, methane, ammonium and cyanide than those produced by the entire annual emissions of the German, British or Japanese industries.
As the acrid cloud drifted north and westwards, it engulfed a zone that extended from Indonesia to Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, and Vietnam. Scientists estimated this resulted in more than 100,000 premature deaths and that the fires might push the world beyond 2ºC of warming and well into the unpredictable calamities zone faster than expected.
The cloud can be understood as the harbinger of a new international crime of ecocide, one likely to become more relevant in the years to come.
Source: Airs Sounders, Aqua Satellite, NASA, January-December 2015, edited by Forensic Architecture.
Some of the roots of the Indonesian forest fires can be traced to the political repression and mass killings undertaken by the Indonesian government since 1965 when local and multinational companies collaborated with the armed forces to seize vast tracts of land from local and indigenous populations and then employed them in exploitative conditions.
The fire took place mainly in dried peat lands made up of thousands of years old decomposed organic matter. In their undisturbed, swamped state, peat lands are fire-resistant, but decades of canal digging by large agribusiness operators drained and dried the peat to prepare it for the monoculture plantation of palm oil making it extremely flammable. Peat can smoulder underground for weeks and creep in great depth many kilometres from source.
In 2015 the Indonesian government declared a state of emergency and started using air-dropped water and cloud-seeding to produce artificial rain in a desperate attempt to extinguish the fire.
Credit: Walhi 2015, edited by Forensic Architecture
Forensic Architecture team
- Eyal Weizman (Principle Investigator)
- Samaneh Moafi (Project Coordinator)
- Jason Men
- Christina Varvia
- Nichola Czyz
- Nabil Ahmed
- Paulo Tavares
- Baltasár Garzon / FIBGAR
- Manuel Vergara / FIBGAR
- Mauricio Corbalán
- Pío Torroja / M7Red