Monday, February 21, 2005

Agony Of Toil In Indonesia

Smoky Mountain-Manila
A couple of months ago I posted on the fact that the high death tolls from typhoons in the Philippines were in great measure attributable to man-made causes - in that case, the irresponsible antics of logging companies. Now two stories from Indonesia reinforce the point.

It is reported here and here that a massive case of timber smuggling has been uncovered in the eastern province of Papua. The smuggling is organised by criminal syndicates and the destination of the timber is China, the largest buyer of illegal timber in the world. The discovery is due to the investigations and campaigning of two non-governmental organisations - the Indonesian environmental group Telapak (Bahasa only) and the London-based Environment Investigation Agency who have just published a joint report called "The Final Frontier". To nobody's surprise the report implicates high-ranking Indonesian military officers, government officials and law enforcers in the illegal operations. As always, it is the poor who are getting ripped off. The solution is simple. Here is M. Yayat Afianto of Telapak
Papua has become the main illegal logging hotspot in Indonesia. The communities of Papua are paid a pittance for trees taken from their land, while timber dealers in Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Komg are banking huge profits. This massive timber theft of Indonesia's last pristine forests has got to be stopped.
At least the new president seems to be willing to look into the matter.

And then there is news of the latest tragedy reported here, here, here and here. Heavy rain in western Java has triggered landslides and it is feared that over 150 people have been killed. They were nearly all living near a massive rubbish dump which collapsed, dislodging tons of earth and rubble. These communities are the human scavengers who literally eke out a living from the discarded waste of the better-off.

Last year Mike Davis wrote a powerful piece in the New Left Review on the rise and rise of the Third World's post-industrial mega-cities, home for a billion-strong global proletariat ejected from the formal economy. The opening sentence of Mike's essay has an eerie prescience:
Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes.
Well, the latest tragedy didn't take place in Jakarta itself but just a few kilometres away. But you get the point. Today I wonder too about the young Nigerian woman and the Peruvian farmer and his family.

Of course the two stories of maldevelopment are linked - as the stories of the poor always are - by the infernal logic of greed and immiseration. How did Marx put it?
Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, moral degradation, at the opposite pole.
For all the peans to "development" in China or the road to "recovery" in post-Suharto Indonesia, the reality is that this is attained only by the agony of toil of the wretched of the earth. How long will it be before the rural communities of Papua, denuded of their ecological patrimony, became the new scavengers in the "planet of slums"?


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