Indonesia’s capital is lush with fake greenery even as the country is cutting down its precious tropical forests at a record rate.
Jakarta’s gleaming air-conditioned malls have a particular fondness for lifeless extravaganzas of plastic ferns or autumnal trees that don’t drop any leaves.
Construction sites are wrapped in screens printed with giant leaves glistening with dew drops or the picturesque deciduous forests found in temperate climates. A new terminal at the international airport has a mini-jungle within its cavernous air-conditioned interior. Despite the odd inclusion of fake grass it has the slight saving grace that the potted greenery is real.
It’s not that Jakarta lacks real trees. The presidential palace has well-manicured surrounds of park, verges and trees. But elsewhere, against the backdrop of unrelenting traffic and brutalist concrete, the greens often seem weirdly out of place, like an introduced alien species.
“Shuttling between air-conditioned high rises decorated with a simulacrum of nature, it’s easy to ignore the impact on climate and communities of relentless forest destruction taking place far away,” said Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Yuyun Indradi.
Indonesia’s most densely populated island, Java, is nearly completed denuded of its original virgin forest and Sumatra is nearly as bare. Palm oil and pulp wood plantation companies are now making inroads into the great forests of Borneo and Papua.
The draining of tropical wetlands for industrial plantations has also come at a significant human cost. Record dry season fires in Sumatra and Borneo in 2015 hastened 100,000 deaths in the region from air pollution, according to a Harvard and Columbia study, and by World Bank estimates cost Indonesia’s economy $16 billion.
“Perhaps when our children grow up, fake trees may help them reflect on how badly we need to protect that which is authentic and can’t simply be purchased in a mall,” said Indradi. “Or will they decide that the more comfortable, accessible and colorful fake version will do them just as well?”
The fake nature is of a piece with our world today. We live in an age when it’s sometimes increasingly difficult to discern the fake and the real.
Artificial flavorings. Perfectly photoshopped selfies to eliminate blemishes and extra weight. Sophisticated simulations of famous buildings in cities across the world — like the skyscrapers of New York dotting the casinos of Las Vegas.
In Japan, there’s an entire street that sells plastic food meticulously designed to make potential restaurant-goers’ mouths water. In some well-to-do gated communities in the United States, gardens are full of fake flowers carefully drizzled with transparent glue so that they look as if they’ve been freshly rained upon.
And then there’s fake news, of course — the latest expression of something synthetic that has people talking and arguing over its very definition.
It makes sense, though, that fake nature would assert itself, just as real nature does, in the in-between spaces of Jakarta. Human beings are inclined to simulate what they can’t have.
Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: As Indonesia cuts forests, fake nature thrives by Dita Alangkara.
Photos by Dita Alangkara