Livelihood dispossession through land burning: Indonesia’s peatland fires as a crisis of capital

Authors: Jenny Goldstein*, Cornell University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: fire, capitalism, Indonesia, livelihoods, development, land
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 4:00 PM / 5:40 PM
Room: Endymion, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Peatland-based fires in Indonesia have become a near-annual crisis across much of Sumatra and Kalimantan, releasing voluminous amounts of carbon dioxide and particulates into the atmosphere and affecting the health of millions across Southeast Asia. These fires occur only if peat swamps are drained for large-scale, capital-intensive agricultural development such as for oil palm and pulpwood cultivation. Once started, they cause permanent ecological and biogeochemical changes in the landscape and increase the chances of future, repeated fire occurrence. The media, state officials, and many researchers continue to attribute such extensive fires to “slash and burn” agricultural practices of largely indigenous farmers. However, peatland-based fires are a far more complex socio-ecological phenomenon. At a proximate level, rural rent-seeking activities—such as farming, fishing, and logging—often provide the “sparks” for such fires and thus have increasingly been rendered illegal by the state. Based on qualitative research in Kalimantan, Indonesia, I argue, however, that the structural causes of the fires are deeply intertwined with the circulation of capital through Asian financial markets that reach beyond rural areas. Additionally, I trace the ways that peatland-based fires can create new finance opportunities for certain actors through land acquisition and investment as much as they destroy livelihoods and modes of production for others.

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