The elderly gentleman approached me as our morning protest yesterday unfolded in front of HSBC’s Indonesian head office in Jakarta’s World Trade Centre building. Refusing the campaign postcard that I offered, his brow furrowed, he berated me for the action and bombarded me with questions. The gist was: Why on earth are you complaining about HSBC, and what does a bank have to do with forests?
It wasn’t hard for me to explain. I’ve been living in Pontianak, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for 22 years, and for these past ten years I’ve lived through annual forest fires and smoke haze. The crisis culminated in 2015. My city, along with dozens of others across Kalimantan and Sumatra, were blanketed in thick smoke. Anyone going outside was forced to inhale the toxic fumes, and in fact most people were exposed even in their own homes, made as they are with breezy open construction. We lived and worked under darkened skies for weeks.
So why was I in Jakarta on a weekday morning, standing in front of the HSBC building? Sharing postcards telling the story about these fires and the damaged forest and peat landscapes that they feed on?
It’s quite simple: because HSBC has been funding palm oil companies that cause deforestation and fuel forest fires. The bank, Europe’s largest, has opened its coffers to some of the worst palm oil companies who rely on draining peat swamps and clearing forests, creating the flammable landscape which every year catches ablaze and chokes our lungs. The fires are eating up the last precious habitat for orangutans and Sumatran tigers, and in 2015 are calculated to have caused a hundred thousand premature deaths from smoke illness across South-East Asia.
I explained all this to the gentleman who demanded to know what I was doing on HSBC’s doorstep. I told him of my concern for the future of Indonesia’s forests in the future. And that more than two hundred thousand other people worldwide – people like you – had signed a petition to HSBC showing they shared my concern. For me, they are not just names on a page, they are my family in Kalimantan, my friends in Sumatra, and thousands more from Hong Kong, France, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, Czech Republic and Great Britain. All of us hope that HSBC will take a leadership role, implement its policy and stop funding the relentless destruction of Indonesia’s forests.
Our action that morning was eventually shut down by police and security guards, and together with my fellow activists I was pushed out of the HSBC office precinct. Before I stepped out, I turned back to make sure that our petition package would be given to HSBC’s management. I looked up at the windows of the tower where I imagined the staff were peering down at the commotion, hesitant to meet us. I hope they will read the names on the petition and understand it’s not a meaningless list. That it is an important message for HSBC and other banks to stop funding the companies which are destroying our remaining forests.
Here’s hoping our message will be understood.
Adi Prabowo is a trainee firefighter with Greenpeace Indonesia