By Alexandra Di Stefano Pironti
To most people, holes in the ozone layer or the melting of polar ice caps can sound like distant catastrophes. “But let’s talk about concrete examples,” says an Indonesian director whose documentary film captures the lives of local farmers affected by a dramatically changing environment.
“I found in Indonesian villages that poverty and access to education are directly connected to nature because the traditional farming methods are affected by changes in the climate,” Shalahuddin Siregar, whose documentary Negeri di Bawah Kabut (The Land Beneath the Fog) has won several international awards, told IPS.
The film follows the lives of two families of Indonesian farmers in Genikan village on the slopes of Mount Merbabu in Central Java, who no longer know when to plant which crops because the seasons are not regular any more due to climate change.
“Most of the children in Indonesia’s countryside cannot continue to attend school because parents don’t earn enough from farming to pay for school expenses, since the weather has become unpredictable and crops fail,” said Siregar, who spent three years shooting the film.
The farmers, he says, have to supplement incomes by migrating to the cities to work as construction workers during months when they cannot farm.
With representatives from 194 countries, including environment, energy and foreign affairs ministers as well as heads of states meeting in Qatar for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP18/CMP8) from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7 to discuss future agreements to deal with climate changes their decisions would affect vulnerable communities in Indonesia and elsewhere.
“The most vulnerable people in Indonesia are small farmers, fishermen, indigenous people, forest-dependent people, women and children,” Martin Baker, communications coordinator of Greenpeace in Indonesia told IPS.
He added that deforestation, extreme weather, floods, landslides, air degradation, water quality and coastal abrasion makes those lives more difficult.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups believe that despite the environmental impacts of climate change from activities such as deforestation, the Indonesian government continues to strongly support big companies extracting the country’s natural resources for huge profits.
Indonesia loses about a million hectares of forests a year, despite a two-year moratorium that limits deforestation, following a pledge of a billion dollars from Norway.
“The government is not serious enough about working on their mitigation programmes. What we saw on the ground, the deforestation is still happening. The biggest source of emission, its root causes and its impact is not well addressed,” said Baker.
According to Elfian Effendi, executive director of the Indonesian NGO Greenomics, the government is doing only as much as it thinks it can afford to, without forgoing the economic benefits of exploiting natural resources.
“Due to unclear support and commitment from the developed countries, the Indonesian government works just based on the ‘scale’ that is affordable for Indonesia, not more,” he told IPS.
With most developed countries too busy fighting economic downturns, developing countries are raising the question of who is going to pay for climate change solutions, and they are particularly concerned about the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which binds industrialised countries to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s special envoy on climate change, Rachmat Witoelar, was quoted as saying that his country will try to convince developed nations to adopt a treaty on climate change and join a trust fund for mitigation efforts.
“Indonesia hopes that developed countries would show leadership in saving the earth from destruction due to climate change, the effects of which are getting stronger every year,” said Witoelar, quoted by the local news agency Antara.
Yudhoyono has pledged to cut his country’s emissions by 26 percent by 2020, or 41 percent over the same period if the international community steps in to help.
When it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change Indonesia is globally important because it contains about half the world’s tropical peatlands and nearly a quarter of the world’s mangroves, which keep the highest carbon stocks of any forest type. How these are preserved or depleted has consequences far beyond Indonesia’s borders, scientists say.
Hence, Indonesia is considered both a victim and a perpetrator of climate change: On one hand the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and on the other hand it is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States.
“As an archipelago, Indonesia could be called a vulnerable state. Most people who live in and near the forest may get severe impacts from deforestation and forest degradation…while those who live on the shoreline may get impacts from the rise of sea levels and from floods,” Wandojo Siswanto, an Indonesian expert on forestry and climate change told IPS.
For vulnerable communities such as those portrayed in Sinegar’s film, there are no immediate solutions.
Eleven-year-old Arifin, the film’s main character, contemplates whether he will be able to continue studying after finishing elementary school as his parents grapple with harvests that have gone wrong because the rains are no longer regular, and cannot afford the school fees, uniform and shoes.
“Arifin’s father felt guilty that he could not afford further studies for his son. He had already failed to send his two older sons to school,” said Siregar, adding that in the end the boy had to go to a cheaper Islamic boarding school in another town with financial help from a neighbour.
“It was hard for the parents to send the son away from home, but they had no choice,” added Siregar.