Wide Angle: The Burning Season

Airing as part of PBS' Wide Angle, The Burning Season examines the complex relationship among Indonesian farmers, global corporate entities, and earth's future.

Wide Angle

Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Dorjee Sun, Achmadi, Governor Irwandi Yusuf
Subtitle: The Burning Season
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-07-22

The first sounds you hear in The Burning Season are cries of animals and birds. The camera pans over tall tropical trees, an orangutan and deeply green foliage. This very brief introduction to what seems wild and natural habitat is interrupted almost immediately by the sound of a chainsaw.

Airing as part of PBS' Wide Angle, now hosted by Aaron Brown, The Burning Season sets up what seems a familiar tension between the planet and the humans who abuse it. But the relationship is not nearly so neat as this first scene suggests. The narrator describes the farmer with the chainsaw, Achmadi, as a man trying to feed his family. In Indonesia, that means clearing land to expand his palm oil plantation "in the simplest, most efficient way possible." More specifically, it means chopping down acres of trees, then burning them. "Fires like these," observes The Burning Season, "pump tons of carbon into the atmosphere and have helped to make Indonesia the world's third largest polluter of greenhouse gases behind only the United States and China." For Achmadi, palm oil is a crucial source of income, as consumers use it for cooking, cleaning, and biofuel. "We know about the environment," he says, "but the problem of food, the problem of filling the stomach, is more important."

With Achmadi's case representing a kind of microeconomic point of departure, a situation pressing and familiar, the episode goes on to consider the macro, embodied by 29-year-old Australian entrepreneur Dorjee Sun. A green activist and millionaire (owing to a successful recruitment software company and the creative agency, Joosed), he has embarked on an ambitious scheme to "capitalize on climate change." Through a corporation he has named Carbon Conservation, he means to sell carbon credits as a way to save Indonesia's remaining forests. When The Burning Season begins, in April 2007, the prevention of deforestation isn't yet an approved credit according to the Kyoto Protocol, he sees a near future in which the carbon market will expand, allowing countries and companies to offset their own harmful carbon "footprints" by investing in forests all over the world.

One place to begin, Sun argues, is Indonesia. The film follows his travels around the globe, an agreement among three of Indonesia's governors in his pocket, pitching the idea to banks, Starbucks, eBay, and other financiers. He's vigorously supported by Governor Irwandi Yusuf of Aceh Province, who proclaims the commitment to saving the forests a part of a "rock and roll, mean spirit, anti-establishment." As the governor heads out to visit with farmers, he acknowledges the daunting task of convincing them to stop burning. There are two sorts of illegal loggers, he observes, one doing it out of greed and the other out of necessity. "I don't have any problem dealing with the greed," Irwandi says. "I can be very harsh. But [it's harder] dealing with the people who need to eat once a day, and for that they have to cut the tree."

And so he and Sun collaborate to bring wealthy corporations into the solution. Sun's journey takes him to nine countries over four weeks. His presentations appeal to bottom lines: there is money to be made in such investments (a helpful bit of animation shows dollar signs hanging off tree branches). The film cuts back to Achmadi in tears, worrying about his family's survival in the face f increasing restrictions and clampdowns on burning: "Who cares about us?" he worries. "They talk about arrests and bans on burning the forest. I'm already scared of losing my head."

Sun intends to make sense of a system that will put farmers to work in other ways and save the orangutans he remembers adoring as a child. Charismatic and tireless, he realizes that no investor is "prepared to step into this space until Kyoto makes a rule." The added and rather major obstacle here concerns America and Australia, who have yet to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol: these nations have been called "Bonnie and Clyde" by others, and the resentment of the U.S. especially is marked during the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, in December 2007, where the U.S. representative declares opposition to an agreement and earns boos from her fellow delegates.

Cleverly, the film crafts a narrative in which Sun and Irwandi's plan for a "bottom-up, integrated Green Vision" seems the best possible outcome. As tense minutes pass during the conference, Achmadi is no longer a focus. Instead, the nations and corporations who control the planet's carbon credits and costs hammer out an agreement. Just how this will be implemented in Achmadi's world remains to be seen.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.