Trading on Hope

In Indonesia small farmers and plantation owners burn forests to clear land for cash crops—resulting in the highest rate of deforestation in the world. In the documentary The Burning Season, Australia-based filmmaker Cathy Henkel explores one controversial approach—a form of carbon trading—to saving these forests and slowing climate change. Becky Garrison, author of The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, spoke with Henkel at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

What compelled you to do this film?
In 2006 there were really big fires that stretched across Southeast Asia. I had just seen An Inconvenient Truth and knew these fires couldn’t be good for the planet. Then I heard that the orangutan population in Indonesia was facing extinction as a result of these fires. So, I started asking questions.
What inspired you to follow entrepreneur Dorjee Sun?
I just happened to meet him at a Christmas party in 2006 and told him about my idea for a film. He called me in January and said, “I think I have a solution to the problem of those forest fires in Indonesia.” I thought he was either a genius or a lunatic.
When did you realize that he might be on to something?
Audiences have noted there’s a sense in the beginning of the film that Dorjee could be a bit of a carpetbagger or a shark. But when I saw Dorjee in Bali convince the governors of three Indonesian provinces to sign over all their forests to his company [in order to preserve them by selling their carbon sequestration ability as credits to big carbon emitters], I knew he was onto something.
How did you choose to focus on “carbon trading”?
Dorjee’s scheme was the first and the freshest that I had heard of, so I just followed him. What I learned is, regardless of whether Dorjee makes money or not, the money raised from these carbon trading deals will go to protect the forests and the people who live in these areas and protect their livelihood. Maybe carbon trading isn’t a perfect method, but if this can prevent the forests from being chopped down now, that’s a good thing.
Why did you choose to profile Achmadi, who is an indigenous farmer?
We needed to personalize the story. He’s a farmer who is relying on the palm oil industry. He needs to chop down the trees and burn them in order to feed his family and put his daughter through school. When I started filming, the farmers didn’t have an awareness that the fires were contributing to climate change. Their argument was that they’re just the small farmers—it’s the big companies you should blame. But there are millions of small farmers.
What role did the Indonesian government play in the climate change debate?
The awareness in the government was quite low. When the Bali U.N. Climate Change conference was coming, suddenly the government leaders were told “no burning” because they didn’t want big smoke in the air while they’re hosting a climate conference. That caused some awareness that there needs to be a change. While it is illegal to burn forests, until there’s a political will and a way to make more money by preserving the forest than cutting it down and burning it, nothing is going to change.
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