Indonesian Deforestation Overtakes Brazil: a colossal collapse in biodiversity beckons

A new study has shown that Indonesia’s rate of tropical deforestation now surpasses that of Brazil. In the last 12 years, some 60,000 square kilometres of virgin forest have been cut down to make way for palm oil plantations, housing and industrial farms.

Huge swathes of forest have been hacked down for oil palm plantations
Huge swathes of forest have been hacked down for oil palm plantations

With 10% of the world’s known plants, and 12% of its mammals, Indonesia is threatening to destroy the biodiversity that helps make it such a special country. It is both a testament to the rapid population growth, and associated demand for jobs and economic growth, that such deforestation is allowed to persist.

As early as the 16th century, the Portuguese recognised the economic benefits of exploiting Indonesia’s natural resources. The name ‘Spice Islands’ became synonymous with the Age of Discovery and the potential wealth it could bring to Europe. The Portuguese were quick to establish trading posts along the coasts of Java, Flores, Solor and the plethora of other Indonesian islands. The interior was impenetrable, covered in dense tropical forest, not yet economically exploitable.

It was the Dutch that moved in next, finally creating the Dutch East Indies which would last from the end of the 18th century until 1949. On arrival they encountered a fiercely-divided tribal society concentrated in regional coastal towns, with few settlements in the interior accessible to the Europeans. Indeed, maps for the period reflect the heavily-forested nature of Java.

18th century Dutch map of Java
18th century Dutch map of Java

It was during this long colonial period that industrial-scale deforestation began, room being created for plantations, rice fields and new settlements. Still, by the turn of the 20th century the population was only 43 million, compared to the 237.6 million recorded in 2010.

It is such a population explosion, seen across the developing world in the past 100 years, that has increased the vulnerability of Indonesia’s forests. Deforestation has been essential in providing living space for this demographic phenomenon and enabling the road network necessary to connect such a large, geographically-diverse country together. Meanwhile, massive Acacia and Oil Palm plantations have been developed in areas of cleared forest to provide food for the growing population and vital export commodities crucial in sustaining Indonesian economic growth.

Early Dutch tobacco plantation on Sumatra (circa 1900). At the turn of the 20th century, some 84% of Indonesia land was covered in forest
Early Dutch tobacco plantation on Sumatra (circa 1900). At the turn of the 20th century, some 84% of Indonesia land was covered in forest

The demographic floundering in Indonesia (despite family planning efforts), coupled with the need to ensure continued economic growth and rising living standards, means that deforestation is likely to persist. Thanks to illegal logging in national parks, often with the complicity of corrupt local officials, species like the Sumatran Tiger could soon follow its Bali and Javan cousins into extinction; the Javan Rhino is in a similarly precarious position.

As we have seen in the Amazon, monumental conservation efforts are required to stave off the worst ravages of modernisation. It will take a radical change in outlook and approach for Indonesia to achieve this feat.

UNESCO Honours Inca Roads: a pre and post-Columbian Marvel

UNESCO has granted world heritage status to the famous Qhapaq Nan road system, built by the Inca through six modern South American countries in the century before the Spanish conquest. Such a decision seems fitting given the crucial role of the Inca roads in both pre and post-Columbian history.

The Inca and their predecessors built modern roads across the most inhospitable terrain - many remain visible today
The Inca and their predecessors built modern roads across the most inhospitable terrain – many remain visible today

The Inca Empire was short-lived, only coming into fruition in the early 15th century after decades of alliances and battles for control over vast expanses of terrain. The rapid expansion of this empire prior to the Spanish arrival was largely precipitated by the road system developed over centuries across the Andes and which the Inca adopted with formidable gusto.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the road system was its ability to allow the Inca to exercise a remarkable degree of centralized control over a huge area stretching from their capital in Cuzco. It facilitated the role of the Kuraka, whereby regional guardians (kurakas) enforced the rule of the Sapa Inca whilst simultaneously protecting the norms and interests of the local people and redistributing resources accordingly. The lengthy, efficient road system enabled messengers to deliver commands from the centre, encouraging regional loyalty, which was enforced by the threat of military mobilization.

The Inca road network
The Inca road network

The Inca also pioneered the Mitmaq labour system. Through this, ethnic ‘outsiders’ were relocated from one part of the empire to another to prevent consolidated regional opposition to central rule. Again, without the sophisticated road system, such a ploy would have been difficult to enact.

Of course the Spaniards would later make use of the Inca roads when they arrived in northern Peru under the command of Francisco Pizarro in 1528. By 1532 the stronghold of Cajamarca had fallen to the Europeans, followed by the capital Cuzco in 1533. With just a few hundred soldiers, Pizarro had conquered a large swathe of the well-resourced Inca Empire in five years.

Pizarro's small force, mounted horseback, overcame a mighty Inca army
Pizarro’s small force, mounted horseback, overcame a mighty Inca army

Employing horses to great tactical and psychological affect was a prime reason for the Spanish success and the Inca road network was a convenient provision for the conquerors, who did not have to face the tropical forests or daunting mountains that derailed similar European missions.

Not to be felled by their own system, the Inca made use of their famous roads to relocate large numbers of men and resources to the mountainous stronghold of Vilcabamba where a neo-Inca state persisted in rebelling against Spanish rule for decades to come.

Even now the Inca roads are a keen tourist attraction and hold fascinating archaeological secrets regarding the successive dynasties of Andean rulers whose crushing defeat at the hands of a group of Spanish bandits has not seen a diminishing of their reputation over the centuries.

Now, with UNESCO protection, further secrets will hopefully be revealed.

Foreign Fighters in a Foreign War: ISIL and the Threat to Global Security

The United States has promised ‘intense’ support for the Iraqi government as it tries to halt the formidable advance of Islamist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At the same time, major concerns have been raised in Britain about the increasing frequency with which Muslims are travelling from the UK to fight for ‘jihadist’ causes and the potential ramifications their unmonitored return might have for national security.

Nasser Muthana (r), from Cardiff, has appeared in ISIL recruitment videos
Nasser Muthana (r), from Cardiff, has appeared in ISIL recruitment videos

British Muslims have trained, fought and been killed in a number of countries over the past few years, particularly Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. Radicalised by hate-spewing preachers at home, they travel abroad for terrorist training camps before either fighting the enemies of radical Islam or returning to the UK with destructive intent.

There is an historical precedent for men, and to a lesser extent women, travelling abroad to fight for a political or religious cause. One need only look at the medieval Crusades to see that this is not a modern phenomenon. Perhaps a more comparable and recent example, however, is the Spanish Civil War.

Between 1936 and 1939, some 35,000 volunteers from across Europe, including many British, fought beside forces of the Second Spanish Republic as part of International Brigades opposed to General Franco’s Nationalist troops.

British International Brigade battalions were made-up of left-wing sympathisers
British International Brigade battalions were made-up of left-wing sympathisers

 

These men were not forced to fight abroad but felt a compulsion, driven by political and ideological reasons, to risk their lives in a foreign conflict. The atrocities committed by ISIL in their march through Iraq, including acts perpetrated by foreign fighters, has shocked many. Yet the Spanish Civil War was no less brutal with torture, rape and mass executions an horrific commonality. Although it has been argued that the majority of these atrocities were committed by Franco’s men, the Republicans too enacted their own barbarities such was the hatred between the two sides. (see Preston P, The Spanish Holocaust, 2012).

Whilst there are some similarities, therefore, between the nature of foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War and the Middle East today there is also one major difference. The men that returned from Spain were not intent on destroying the existing political, religious and social fabric of their country, as the jihadists are now.

Fighters from the International Brigades may have returned to their countries intent on challenging the existing ruling order but not using the same terror tactics advocated by the Islamic extremists.

The International Brigades fought to uphold a democratically-elected government. Though it may be too far to label their cause ‘just’, it certainly had more legitimacy than that of the Islamic extremists (or even the Crusaders) who seek to destabilize the status quo.

Michael Adebolajo, who murdered soldier Lee Rigby in daylight on the streets of Woolwich, had previously been arrested in Kenya seeking to join up with Al-Shabaab terrorists
Michael Adebolajo, who murdered soldier Lee Rigby in daylight on the streets of Woolwich, had previously been arrested in Kenya seeking to join up with Al-Shabaab terrorists

More worryingly, the ability of these fighters to return to their host countries, filled with the desire to replicate the bloodshed seen daily across the Middle East, is alarming. Such a reality dents the notions that the troubles of the Middle East are none of the West’s concern. Such a lackadaisical attitude could prove fatal.