Indonesia Moves Against Fires

Despite what appears to be one of the worst burning seasons in recent years, Indonesia has begun to move against rogue palm oil operators, levying an unprecedented fine the equivalent of US$26 million against one company, ordering two operators to jail and sending hundreds of military personnel to some of the hardest-hit areas to combat the blazes.

In all, four companies in the south Sumatran region have been charged with breaking environmental rules. Nonetheless, Singapore and Malaysia have both issued complaints to Jakarta as drifting smoke chokes both nearby countries. Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency said potential losses from the fires and haze during last year’s burn season were estimated at the equivalent of US$1.6 billion. Given the spreading problem, it is likely to run that high this year as well.

The government in Jakarta declared a state of emergency in Riau Province, the closest to Singapore amid fears that worsening air quality could hamper the upcoming Formula 1 Grand Prix slated for the coming weekend. At top speeds of up to 300 km per hour, clear vision is essential. Indonesia has also deployed aircraft were deployed to water-bomb the Riau fires. Both Malaysia and Singapore were considering cloud-seeding to chemically induce rain.

In the Jambi region of Sumatra, the local Environmental Agency has announced that the air pollution standard index (ISPU) has reached a “very dangerous” level. It is the highest recorded in the past several years, sending dozens of residents to local hospitals. Two persons – a two-year-old boy and a 15-year-old youth – died in mid-September from the air pollution.

The Singapore National Environment Agency said it had urged Indonesia to “look into urgent measures to mitigate the transboundary haze occurrence” and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia issued a statement of concern about the problem.

Nonetheless, the country has not been standing still. The government announced last weekend that 1,000 troops were being sent to the worst-affected areas to combat the fires. So far at least 107 individuals have been charged for lighting the fires that have blanketed the region, clearing at least 68 areas for slash-and-burn agriculture. Central Kalimantan has the highest number of fires, followed by South Sumatra, Riau and West Kalimantan.

However, the problem is far bigger than that. Greenpeace Indonesia reported forest fires in Riau worsened from 6,644 hotspots, in 2011 to 15,112 hotspots in 2013. It didn’t supply later figures.

The government is also prosecuting four more of the biggest palm oil firms in a case “that is unprecedented both for the scale of the official response and the severity of the punishments that have been handed down,” according to the international environmental NGO Mongabay.

Also earlier this month, Mongabay reported, the Supreme Court in Indonesia rejected an appeal from the plantation developer PT Kallista Alam and ordered the company to pay the equivalent of US$26 million in fines and reparations, putting an end to a three-year legal process, one of the biggest fines ever levied on a local company, ending a three-year legal process that began when the Environment Minister brought charges against Kallista.

More than 75 percent of the Tripa region of south Sumatra, where Kallista was operating, is now covered by palm oil concessions. The number of Sumatran orangutans has fallen from more than 1,000 in the early 1990s, the population now has fallen to fewer than 200 in the remaining 17,000 hectares of forest.

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Photo credit: Mongabay

In July last year two Kallista Alam managers were sentenced to prison although the sentences have yet to be enforced. According to a statement issued to Mongabay by the Coalition Team for the Protection of the Tripa Peat Swamp, “Implementation of these sentences is believed to have been pending the appeal of the civil case with the Supreme Court, and presumably must now be enforced with the recent rejection of that appeal.”

The Aceh provincial government established a protected zone in Kallista’s former concession earlier this year.

Environment and Forestry Ministry Siti Nurbaya praised the ruling. “We really appreciate the court’s decision,” she said on Saturday.

Muhammad Nur, executive director of the Aceh branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO, also noted the timing of the decision.

“May this be a lesson for other naughty plantation companies in Aceh as well as North Sumatra, Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra and Borneo and other areas for them not to burn land,” he said, adding that regional governments as well as the central government should sue companies that burn land.

According to Mongabay, Rudi Putra, a leading Acehnese conservationist and Founder of the Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL), attributed the verdict in part to the consistent attention the case, and the Leuser Ecosystem more generally, has received.

“This win would never have been possible without the national and international public support the case has had from people who wouldn’t accept this heinous destruction, who have monitored the legal process from the start and who have kept up the pressure for a just and transparent result,” he said. “We want to thank everyone who made this positive and extremely welcome final decision possible.”

T.M Zulfikar of Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari, an NGO, also applauded the verdict.

“We will also be monitoring closely what happens next to ensure the fines and reparations are indeed paid and carried out in full, including the restoration of the affected concession to its former condition,” said Zulfikar, who brought an earlier legal challenge against Kallista Alam’s permit.

Farwiza Farhan of Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA), an NGO, also welcomed the ruling, but she pointed out the threats still facing Leuser due to Aceh’s controversial new spatial plan, which the province’s parliament passed last year but which critics say is illegal because it never received central government approval and doesn’t mention the Leuser Ecosystem, a nationally imposed strategic area.

The plan, Farwiza said, “effectively legalizes numerous illegal roads, many of which have already been cut through the forests, and it opens up vast areas for potential new, timber, mining and plantation concessions.

“Despite the win against PT Kallista Alam in Tripa, we still have a much more desperate and urgent fight ahead of us to protect Aceh’s forests and people from another, major, and totally avoidable emerging disaster.”