The Roots of Ecological Catastrophe Patrimonialism -- El Niño and Indonesia's 1997-98 Forest Fires

by Dan Packel

East-West Center Working Papers, International Graduate Student Conference Series, No. 15

Publisher: Honolulu: East-West Center
Publication Date: 2005
Binding: paper
Pages: 35
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Devastating forest fires struck Indonesia in 1997 and 1998, burning nearly 10 million hectares of forest and creating an unprecedented ecological disaster. These fires were immediately provoked by severe drought, itself the consequence of El Niño. This paper seeks to provide a political explanation for this ecological catastrophe, arguing that the neo-patrimonial nature of the Indonesian polity under Suharto was responsible for turning ecological irregularities into an unmitigated disaster. This work draws upon the analysis of Mike Davis (2001), who, in his attention to El Niño events over the last two centuries, situates environmental degradation and its ramifications as the result of a change in economic systems, particularly the involuntary integration of the world into the capitalist economy. Indonesia is used as a case study to expand this point, identifying how domestic politics prompted wide reaching structural changes in forest-based production, which in turn created conditions conducive to ecological disaster upon the arrival of El Niño. This paper traces the history of Indonesian forest policy over the thirty years preceding the fires and connects this history to analysis of the structure of Indonesian politics, particularly the network of patronage connecting Suharto, the military, and Chinese conglomerates. Politics and economic change are treated as intimately connected, especially in an era in which the rhetoric of development enabled the state to take an active role in intervening in the national economy. The findings indicate that rather than viewing the 1997-98 El Niño simply as an anomalous climatic event, which, through its severity, just happened to provoke a massive environmental and economic disaster, it is necessary to situate this incident in the context of Indonesia’s New Order. This case suggests that, when an anomalous, unprecedented, but not entirely unexpected climatic event, such as the 1997-98 El Niño, strikes, the consequences should not be seen as unavoidable and inevitable. One cannot overlook the importance of domestic politics in determining the conditions that mitigate or exacerbate ecological calamities. Paradoxically, when a catastrophic climatic event does occur, the greatest costs are paid by those who have the least say over the structural changes that exacerbated the impact of the event, in this case indigenous subsistence producers, geographically and ethnically distant from elite policy makers.