Wide Angle: The Burning Season

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.

RATING 6 / 10