By Peggy McInerny
Goldstein didn’t start out to study the consequences of an environmental disaster in Indonesia. A Ph.D. student in UCLA’s Department of Geography, she wrote her master’s thesis on the development of the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda in 2008.
Thinking she might continue to study the coffee industry on another continent, she set her sights on Southeast Asia and began studying Indonesian during her third year of graduate school. She subsequently spent two summers studying the language in Indonesia itself, followed by a long sojourn around the country in fall 2011.
It was during that trip that she learned about what she calls the “infamous environmental disaster” of the Suharto regime (1967–1998) and discovered her dissertation topic.
As part of his concerted push to achieve national food self-sufficiency, former Indonesian president Suharto drained over one million hectares of land in the water-logged tropical peat forest of Borneo (Central Kalimantan province) in order to cultivate rice. The Mega Rice Project dovetailed with a social engineering transmigration program that moved landless peasants from Java to areas where they were given land to cultivate.
Jenny Elaine Goldstein, doctoral student in UCLA’s Department of Geography.
Despite the objections of many experts who argued that rice couldn’t be cultivated in the area, in 1996 a gargantuan construction project bulldozed trees, floated the timber out of the area and built vast concrete canals to drain the forest and irrigate the future rice paddies. Some 10,000 settlers arrived in the newly clearly area and were given land on which to grow rice.
Meager rice production began in 1997, but then failed. An extraordinarily severe dry season subsequently led to massive fires in 1997–98. Once dry, a peat forest ignites easily and burns very hot due to the accumulated carbon in the soil.
The resulting fires raged out of control — even the soil ignited — releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and generating smoke that blanketed the region. The current 2013 peat fires in Sumatra and resulting toxic smog in Malaysia and Singapore are already being compared to 1997–1998 disaster.
After Suharto was overthrown in the midst of an economic crisis in 1998, the project was halted, leaving devastation in its wake. “It’s a story of a human-environment relationship,” says Goldstein, “in which there was a massive push back from nature — it could not be controlled.”
Goldstein’s project began with a desire to write an environmental history of the tropical peat forest where the Mega Rice Project (MRP) occurred. She returned to Indonesia in 2013, when she traveled to Central Kalimantan, explored the MRP site and surrounding peat forest by boat, spoke with locals and stayed in river villages.
Her project has come to focus on how, in the era of climate change, the degraded landscape has been commodified yet again — this time in the name of science. Scientists and capital investors have identified the region as a “hotspot” of global climate change.
Today, explains Goldstein, scientists, engineers and nongovernmental organizations are trying to quantify the carbon emissions from the soil of the cleared forest, which oxidizes and releases carbon even in the absence of fires. They are also conducting research to determine whether the forest can be rehabilitated and how current carbon emissions from the area can be reduced.
Goldstein’s research also seeks to elucidate how this site of socio-ecological disaster contributes and responds to contemporary climate change. Overall, her project seeks to understand how political economic priorities, scientific knowledge and individual agency contribute to tropical environmental change.
Her project has great relevance for the Pacific Rim — where a number of tropical sites have been devastated by large, capital-intensive agricultural production — and the ongoing debate over climate change and environmental disasters.
Goldstein returns to Indonesia in fall 2013 to continue her fieldwork. We look forward to hearing from her upon her return.