Capitalist pollution in Southeast Asia

by Frank, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #15, October 25, 1997)

. During the summer and early autumn of this year the skies of much of Southeast Asia were filled with a deadly build-up of air pollution. This was a repetition, on a larger and more severe scale, of a pollution problem which has been mounting in the region for a number of years and which is going to take much more to solve than the too little and too late cooperation of several ASEAN countries plus Australia to fight forest and peat fires which occurred in late September and October. According to the director-general of the World Wide Fund for Nature this year's episode was "not just an environmental disaster but a tremendous health problem being imposed on millions" (as indeed it was). But imposed by whom or what? We'll see below that it's obviously capitalist industrialization and development which are at root of the problem. We'll also see how, being the representatives of capitalism that they are, the governments in the region are either directly contributing to the problem or aiding and abetting it. Thus the question of industrializing and tilling the soil on the basis of a new social system is raised.

Briefly on the severity of the 1997 pollution
and some of its effects--

. Tens of millions of people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines were immediately and directly affected with people of the first two countries being hardest hit. In several of these countries the Pollutants Standards Index stood in the lower 100s for weeks on end and in the worst hit areas it rose from the 500s into the 800s. (In the Malaysian industrial city of Kuching it hit 839 in late September. ) According to the wisdom of the medical and government establishments, even when this index reaches 100 outdoor workers with heart or respiratory problems should consult with doctors, use respirators, etc. , and 500 is considered an emergency level. The immediate result of breathing such air for long periods of time was that several people died and many, many thousands were hospitalized (where there were hospitals, and where people could afford to go to one). Moreover, visibility sometimes fell to as low as a few yards; and there were deaths and injuries associated with this as small boats collided with ships. (It's also possible that the clogged air was a factor in both the crash of an airliner--which killed 234 people--and several ship collisions in the Strait of Malacca. ) Airports, schools, and factories throughout the region were closed, opened, and closed again on a daily and sometimes hourly basis; towns with populations as large as 45,000 were evacuated.

. Less discussed has been the fact that the affects of this year's pollution will be felt for many years to come. For example, the prolonged breathing of smog by millions of children is going to result in many cases of lung problems and earlier than normal deaths in the future. Besides this there are the issues of still more damage being done to the environment as a whole (including outside the most immediately affected area), more endangered species being driven to extinction resulting in the further narrowing of the earth's biodiversity, etc. And there is the issue of the burning of an estimated 2 million acres of rain forests (more of which below).

The immediate causes of the pollution .  .  .
and the mystification and distortion of them--

. Most briefly the 1997 disaster (as well as earlier episodes of smog build-up) was brought on by the fact that smoke from fires lit in Indonesia to clear land for capitalist plantations and government development projects blew to the north (and northeast and northwest). There the smoke clouds both trapped factory pollutants (and to some extent auto pollutants) underneath as well as mixing with them. Yet even though these causes can be understood by even a schoolchild doesn't mean that the representatives of capitalism didn't try to mystify and distort them. They did. And what these representatives (government officials, politicians, writers for the bourgeois press, etc. ) said was very much biased by the national political interests of the capitalists they represented. A few examples:

(1) Indonesia

. It used to be that the Indonesian government blamed "primitives" using slash and burn agricultural techniques for the smoke that blew northward. But this can no longer stand up.Everyone knows the forests are being burned to clear the way for giant pulp and paper and palm oil plantations. (World market prices for the latter have been rising a good deal in recent years.) So this year the Indonesian government tried to blame the weather: "El Nino" had caused a drought which had prolonged the dry season which had caused fires to get out of control and so on. Thus the head of the National Disaster Coordinating Board pointed to "the freak weather phenomenon" and concluded "It's a natural disaster which no one could have prevented".Meanwhile other government officials (with straight faces) explained how the drought was causing spontaneous combustion.

. Well, it's obvious that this nonsense could only travel so far and as the international protests increased the Indonesian government officials "took full responsibility" for what was occurring and made a few arrests of people lighting fires. Yet this "full responsibility" did not include arresting themselves either for abetting (i. e. , not enforcing the paltry laws they had on the books) or for causing fires themselves (some of the worst fires were peat fires resulting from government development projects).

(2) Malaysia

. Here there was plenty of talk about plantation-clearing in Indonesia being the cause of the haze and plenty of silence on the contributions of the Malaysian capitalist industries to it. Besides this Malaysian capitalism has its own program of forest clearing and some of the fires causing the haze were in Malaysia. Moreover, since Malaysian capitalists are big investors in some of the forestry corporations burning land in Indonesia, this was another Malaysian contribution to the smog-pot.

(3) Thailand

. The Thai establishment echoed its Malaysian class brothers. For example the Bangkok Posteditorialized on September 26: "Good neighbors don't hurt others. Unless Indonesia stops the pollution, it cannot be considered a good neighbor. " Quite apparently, the Thai capitalists whose industries were contributing to the pollution were considered good neighbors.

(4) The "civilized" and righteous industrialized
countries (the imperialist countries)

. Here perhaps the biggest tendency was to blame the pollution on the fact that these were "third world" countries--backward and "uncivilized"--which by definition just can't do anything right.Such realities as the fact that U. S. agribusiness pours thousands of tons of pesticides and pollutants into the soil and water each year, 70% of the emissions causing the green-house effect come from the industrialized countries, the U. S. nuclear monopolies and bomb-making factories continue to poison the earth with radioactive wastes (and to lie about it, fire and hound whistle-blowers at Hanford, Washington and elsewhere), etc. , are conveniently forgotten about in this imperialist framework. Forgotten too is the fact that most of the poisonous pesticides used in the poor countries are manufactured by the civilized corporations of the rich countries.Forgotten too are the big Western investors reaping wealth from polluting operations in the poor countries, and the outright ownership of many of these operations by westerners.(1)Lastly, we mustn't forget the U. S. forest industry. It (along with its Canadian counterpart) is world famous for clear-cutting and all the destruction of habitat and biodiversity, the erosion and silting of streams, etc. , which goes along with it. Only when it started to run out of old-growth forests to cut did it go over to tree farming (plantations) in any serious way. And then it used, and still very much does use, fire to clear the old logging slash and "scrub" trees for these plantations (on both government and private lands), fire which has a certain propensity for getting out of control. And having denuded nearly all of the United States of it's old-growth the corporations dominating this industry are now scouring the world for more trees to clear-cut and one of the places they've set up shop is the "third world". (2)

Too little and too late--

. Environmentalists in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region have charged that the Indonesian government knew nine months beforehand that there would be a severe drought and that fires lit to burn forests and peat would therefore spread rapidly. The government knew there would be more smoke than usual. But it did nothing. The monsoon rains would eventually clear the air, just as they always did. This set the stage for the health and environmental disaster of late summer and autumn.

. September came and the masses of the affected countries were protesting, there were some street demonstrations, and the international out-cry was mounting. Still, the protests and out-cry were at a relatively low level and might have been weathered. But capitalist profit-making throughout the region was being hurt as factories and airports closed, shipping was disrupted, tourists canceled their reservations, etc. This seems to be what was decisive this time in causing the governments of the region to pressure their Indonesian counterpart into doing something (in a brotherly and "good-neighborly" sort of way). There was also the issue that the Indonesian capitalists themselves have investments throughout the region and their profits were being reduced too. Yet even when the Indonesian and other governments acted it was very late and with half-measures. Troops were used to fight fires and air forces seeded clouds to cause rain, yet as late as Sept. 26 the Indonesian military dictatorship had not declared a general mobilization even in the affected regions! Meanwhile the fascist occupations of East Timor and West Papua continued, the militarist government sent police to break up a congress of the 250,000-member Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union and arrest leaders (Sept. 19), etc. No protests of these matters were made by the neighboring governments.

. Obviously the Indonesian government didn't eventually act because it cared about the people suffering and beginning to die from pollution in the countries to the north. In fact it's virulently racist and practices genocide against Melanesians and (potentially) others. Nor does it care a whit about members of the Indonesian working class and peasantry no matter how "pure" their blood.It slaughtered nearly half a million of the latter during its United States supported rise to power in the mid-1960s. And its vision of the future includes that they be exploited in Nike, Reebok, and other sweatshops. But the governments of the countries to the north didn't act out of concern for the masses either. They too knew that there would be a big pollution problem this year, yet many of them had not even taken as simple of measures as to stockpile surgical masks.And it should be stressed that this is an extremely minimal measure for ordinary surgical masks are poor filters of smog particulates and need to be changed very often. All of the governments of the region are members of the same capitalist clubs (ASEAN, APEC, etc. ) and have many inter-linked investments which they fight to protect besides fighting to protect the general capitalist order from being upset by democratic revolutions (against the Indonesian militarists for example) which have the potential of greatly upsetting that order, especially if they spread. And a communist movement rooted in the rapidly growing proletariat would spell the end of the capitalist order altogether.

. Finally, someone might object that since Indonesia is such a giant compared to other countries in the region in terms of population, an experienced military, and so on, that these countries had no choice but to make weak protests, send a few thousand military men and civilians to fight fires, etc. But where then does that leave such imperialist giants as the United States? Well, not only did its government (through the CIA) play a big role in bringing the Indonesian militarists to power over the dead bodies of hundreds of thousands but it's supported them ever since by selling them billions of dollars of sophisticated military hardware, "advising" them, etc. Sure, U.S. spokesmen publicly utter expressions of distaste for some of oppressive policies of the regime from time to time but no serious actions have ever been taken against it. Business goes on as usual with their good ally and they want more of it. Last year Clinton traveled to Jakarta for the annual APEC meeting and in effect kissed and hugged the Indonesian militarists while they continued to stand on the throats of the peoples of West Papua and East Timor as well as the proletariat at home. This year there has been a lot of silence from Washington on the environmental crisis building in Southeast Asia and the contributions of the Indonesian regime to it. The U. S. capitalists too have economic interests they're protecting in the region and those interests don't dictate a serious fight against its polluters. In fact U. S. -owned (or partially owned) outfits themselves are big polluters there.

There must be another way--

. One thing the civilized scribes of The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other U.S. papers haven't hesitated to do is to point out that the "third world" capitalists of Indonesia use fire to clear land for plantations because this is the "cheap" way of doing things. But doing things cheaply (cost-cutting) is just as much practiced by the U. S. , Canadian, and other capitalists of the industrialized world as it is by "third world" capitalists. The issue that the bourgeois press doesn't want to address is that doing things this way (clearing forests with fire, dumping industrial wastes into rivers, releasing poisons into the atmosphere, etc. ) is forced upon the capitalists by the laws of capitalist competition which are rooted in the fundamental laws of the capitalist system of production itself. Now it's obvious that the workers and other exploited and oppressed people of the world--those most severely poisoned and otherwise affected by pollution--have an immediate and vital interest in fighting to force the capitalists to spend money for cleaner or more environmentally friendly methods of production and communists support these struggles. They have been the decisive factor forcing the capitalists to clean up their act, at least a little, where they have actually done so. Yet today's capitalist system is such that even with the forcing of the capitalists of one industry or region of the world to take a few environmentally friendly measures the overall pollution and other environmental devastation continues to escalate. But there's more to socialism than forcing capitalists to adopt more costly methods of production. We want to end this system of production altogether and, in fact, since socialist production is not based on production for profit the present-day concepts of "cheap", "costly", etc. , will eventually lose all meaning. The economic laws of today's capitalist world dictate that millions of Southeast Asians be unemployed while land is cleared with fire (cheaply) so capitalists can make bundles on the world commodities market. If in tomorrow's socialist world the masses of people really decide to clear the forests for plantations (to some extent at least) to satisfy their wants there will obviously be hands available, as well as the technology, to allow it to be done in less polluting ways. Both already exist.

. However, it seems very doubtful that a socialist society would decide to clear the remaining natural forest ecosystems of the world to make room for plantations at all. Such forests, what's left of them, are the lungs of the world, a source of clean water, a treasure trove for new scientific discovery, etc. , as well as being a place where people can go just to enjoy themselves (at least potentially, under the capitalist system of production the masses of workers have little time to pursue life's pleasures). The capitalist class knows these things and is especially concerned with the questions of clean air and water. Thus governments and international institutions consisting of the representatives of various governments draw up management plans, adopt treaties, etc. But these plans are generally reactions to problems which have reached crisis proportions already.Moreover, because these governments are capitalist governments they, by their very nature, attempt to balance the interests of capitalist industries which make money destroying old-growth forests (for example) with capitalists who would financially benefit from their preservation.Hence the plans that are adopted, usually after years of wrangling, are very paltry--even regarding the issues they address. Moreover, although the capitalist class can reach certain agreements on certain issues the basic nature of the capitalist system of production ensures that the environment is going to be further wrecked somewhere else. Motivated by profit, and typified by dog-eat-dog competition and anarchy, this system of production cannot be planned overall and even those agreements which are made, plans which are laid, etc. , are in constant danger of being broken down. But if the world's people are liberated from the shackles of capitalism through a socialist revolution they'll be free to think about and plan--effectively plan and plan on a world scale--society's productive activities on the basis of their wants and, ultimately, to carry out these plans on the basis of their consciousness. Naturally, all productive activity means interaction with nature but if the benefit of human society rather than the profit of individuals, corporations, sectors of the economy, etc. , is its basis then it would seem incongruous that the environment be further wrecked through destroying more forests. More, it would seem that restoring the previously wrecked environment would be seen as an important subject for really mass human activity.


(1) Just take one notorious example of the latter which relates to Indonesia: the extremely rich Freeport gold and silver mine. This mine is located high in the mountains of West Papua, i. e. , on the half of the island of New Guinea which the Indonesian fascists have annexed and now call "Irian Jaya Province", and is a tremendous polluter of everything downstream. But the Indonesian military has used the most beastly of means to crush movements to get the mine owners to clean up their act, compensate West Papuans whose way of life have been destroyed by pollution and displacement, etc. And the chief beneficiaries of these sordid acts have their headquarters where? At Freeport International in New Orleans, of course. They're civilized and sweet-smelling men, one and all! (Back to text.)

(2) The following might be instructive both in this regard and in regard to the imperialist press:The Trillium Corporation (clear-cutters par excellence from Washington state) has won a contract to log nearly a million acres of old-growth forest in Tierra del Fuego. In the face of world-wide protests against destruction of the last remaining natural forest ecosystems (including protests in Chile and Argentina) the corporate chiefs promulgated a "shelterwood" forest management plan (a plantation plan) with a 90 percent cut over 15 years. But hey, this isn't going to be clear-cutting! And from the pen of one of the most liberal reporters of that most liberal and "environmentally conscious" newspapers (The Seattle Times) came page after page of adulation for Trillium and its corporate chairman. The devastation of the forests of the southern tip of South America was hailed as "do(ing) things right" via methods that "turn logging on its ear". (A few months later, that is in June, the other major capitalist newspaper in Seattle--which is also liberal and promotes itself as a friend of the environment--devoted two whole major articles to the really shocking news that two new holes in the ozone layer had developed over the northern hemisphere. In the ensuing months they haven't said another word on this issue. It seems that in the industrialized world, the world whose capitalists are most responsible for ozone depletion, filling the pages of the newspapers with dozen-page specials on baseball teams, the late Princess Diana, etc. , is much more important than an issue like this. (Text)

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