Abdur drew deeply on a yellowish kretek, the Indonesian cigarette blended of tobacco and cloves. The kretek gives off a spicy scent and a sweet taste that I've always associated with the romantic East I discovered as a fledgling foreign correspondent.
But it's rough on the lungs. Unlike me, Abdur didn't seem to be giving any thought to his lungs.
"Fire is good," he explained patiently during the course of a long and convoluted conversation through an interpreter. "Burning the land means we'll have enough food to fill our bellies for the year. Fire is life."
Fire is also free. Clearing land by bulldozer costs about $80 an acre—impossible for subsistence farmers. They operate in the wake of logging teams, mainly poachers, who scythe the forest, felling huge trees and skidding out the trunks on bamboo tracks. Using the scrap timber left behind, the farmers build shacks for their families. Then, swinging heavy-bladed parangs, they slash the remaining brush and saplings, mound them high, and set the heaps afire.
This time, taking advantage of a prolonged drought, Abdur had burned off much more than usual—the equivalent of five football fields. Even as some patches still smoked, he was planting bright green cassava seedlings alongside his house. In a few days, he, his wife, and their three children would jab shallow holes into the warm peat with sharpened sticks and drop in rice seed.
The 1997 drought, Indonesia's most severe in 50 years, was largely the result of El Niño. This periodic warming of Pacific waters reverses global weather patterns, substituting dry seasons for rainy, storms for calm, hot for cold. It had held back the monsoon, which normally begins in September, until November. Abdur had never heard of El Niño, but he knew that the late monsoon gave him better conditions to burn. "More fire means more clear land," he said with a wave of his softly crackling kretek. "And more clear land means more planting and more food."
And more palm oil. Slash and burn has been industrialized. Giant agribusiness firms clear-cut the hardwoods for sale abroad, peel lesser trees into sheets for plywood, burn the scrub, and put in huge plantations of fast-growing, cash-earning oil palms for the world's soaps, salad dressings, and cookies.
Laying the bulk of the blame on those like Abdur Rani who burn to survive—which official propaganda and much of the resultant news coverage did—muddies the reality. Only burning by agribusinesses could spread such a pall of air pollution throughout Southeast Asia and shrink Indonesia's rain forest so quickly. And if the fires burst out of control, either by accident or by design, and they frequently do, then plantations may be expanded that much faster.