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 familiar framework of human-on-human violence: 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 to warfare, it is also entangled with it; 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 the 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 kilometres of forest and peat lands. Fumes from about 130,000 local sources combined into a massive cloud, a few hundred kilometres long and a few kilometres 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 across Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and Vietnam. Scientists estimate that this resulted in more than a hundred thousand premature deaths, and that the fires might push the world beyond 2ºC of global warming – and into the realm of potential and unpredictable calamities – 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 fires can be traced to the political repression and mass killings undertaken by the Indonesian government since 1965, when local and international companies collaborated with the armed forces to seize vast tracts of land from indigenous populations, and then employed those same populations in exploitative conditions.
The fire took place mainly in dried peat lands made up of thousand-year-old decomposed organic matter. In their undisturbed, swamped state, peat lands are fire-resistant, but decades of canal digging by large agribusiness operators had 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 the source of the fire.
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