Posts Tagged ‘illegal burning’

Indonesia Court Finds Corporation Guilty of Setting Illegal Fires

August 31, 2016

A helicopter from Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency dousing fires in Kampar in Riau province on Aug 29, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

The Palembang High Court has overturned a lower court’s decision to clear pulpwood firm Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) of illegally setting fires on its concession land in 2014.

According to a copy of the Aug 12 ruling that was seen by The Straits Times, the firm was found to have “committed an unlawful act”.

The High Court also ordered BMH, which supplies products to Indonesia’s Sinar Mas Group, to pay 78.5 billion rupiah (S$8 million) in damages.

The award is a small fraction of the 7.8 trillion rupiah in damages sought by the Environment and Forestry Ministry when it first filed the civil suit against BMH last year.

Still, green groups such as the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) hailed the latest verdict as a “small win” for Indonesia’s conservation efforts.

Walhi’s South Sumatra chapter director Hadi Jatmiko said: “On the one hand, the court is on the side of the environment by saying BMH is guilty of having illegally burnt 20,000ha of its own concession in 2014. But it is disappointing that the compensation is less than 1 per cent of the total sum demanded.”

Indonesia – through its Environment and Forestry Ministry – has been taking errant firms to task over illegal forest fires that have been the cause of transboundary haze pollution.

Mr Jasmin Ragil Utomo, who is from the Environment and Forestry Ministry, yesterday acknowledged the court’s decision.

“The most important thing is that the court has declared that the company has committed a violation,” said Mr Jasmin, who is the ministry’s director for environmental dispute settlement.

BMH’s lawyers declined to comment on the case, saying they have not received an official copy of the latest verdict.

This is not the first time BMH is in the news over allegations related to forest fires. Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency earlier this year said the firm has been ordered to restore 95,000ha of damaged peatland in its concessions.

An Indonesian soldier tries to extingusih a peatland fire in Kampar, Riau, Sumatra island, Indonesia on Aug 23, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS / ANTARA FOTO

Satellite data from Global Forest Watch detected at least 22 fire alerts in their pulpwood concessions between Aug 21 and Sunday.

Indonesia – through its Environment and Forestry Ministry – has been taking errant firms to task over illegal forest fires that have been the cause of transboundary haze pollution.

Haze from fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra returned in recent weeks, prompting fears of a repeat of last year’s crisis, which sent air pollution levels to a record high and affected millions of people in the region.

Yesterday, heavy rainfall across Indonesia provided much-needed relief for people in Sumatra’s Riau province.

Several areas in Riau were hit by severe air pollution in recent days, prompting some schools to suspend classes since Monday.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) yesterday said a combination of rain and fire-fighting efforts, including cloud-seeding operations, helped improve air quality.

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, who heads BNPB’s data and information division, said the air pollution standard index for most regions in Sumatra was generally under 50, or in the “good” range.

In Riau’s Rokan Hilir regency – one of the worst-hit areas in recent days and where fire-fighting efforts were focused yesterday – the air quality was “moderate”.

“Fire-fighting operations in the six provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan will continue,” said Dr Sutopo.

A total of five BNPB helicopters as well as three fixed-wing aircraft have been deployed to douse fires in Riau, he added.


Indonesia’s smoke and haze is everybody’s lung problem — Can Singapore Help?

September 19, 2015

Indonesia’s smoke is everybody lung problem: Smoke rising from fires burning at a concession area in Pelalawan, Riau province, yesterday. Green groups have maintained that lenient sentences against errant companies remain a weak link as the deterrent effect has not been felt. AFP photo

If Indonesia sees through prosecution of errant firms, business owners may be forced to act more responsibly

By Francis Chan
Straits Times
Indonesia Bureau Chief

The call to get tough on those responsible for illegal forest fires raging in Sumatra and Kalimantan came from the top.

There was to be no more dragging of feet from the authorities, said Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs Luhut Panjaitan during a high-level meeting in Jakarta on Tuesday.

Track down the culprits and send them to jail, ordered the former Special Forces general, who until recently was also President Joko Widodo’s chief of staff.

Mr Luhut might as well be speaking on behalf of the President, who was on a working tour of the Middle East when the Pollutant Standards Index in the Riau capital of Pekanbaru hit a record 984 on Monday. Any reading of 300 and above is considered hazardous.

His words clearly carried weight.

About 140 suspects, including seven described by Indonesian police as corporate executives, were promptly rounded up on Wednesday. The rest were individuals – farmers mainly – not officially linked to any of the larger firms, or their smaller suppliers that run plantations on concession land.

The swift action, particularly against the corporates, came as a surprise to many.

Such arrests are rare. Some would even go as far as to say they do not expect any convictions from these cases that primarily involve the breach of environmental laws.

After all, it’s not the first time that suspects in such cases were arrested and charged in court.

Several cases dating back to 2012 and 2013 – the year when forest fires were so severe they caused record levels of air pollution in Singapore and states of emergency in Malaysia and Indonesia – remain in limbo with no convictions.

Getting tough on recalcitrant companies and individuals has always been a challenge for the Indonesian authorities.

Green groups and observers say investigations are often let down by poor law enforcement, corruption and unclear rules on land use.

No wonder national police chief Badrodin Haiti once said prosecuting crimes against the environment was more complex than dealing with terrorism.

There were, however, cases in which plantation companies were successfully prosecuted.

The recent case against Indonesian palm oil company PT Kallista Alam is one. The firm had its appeal rejected by the Supreme Court last month and was ordered to pay a staggering 366 billion rupiah (S$37 million) in fines for illegally burning peatland in Aceh back in 2012.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo

Peatlands are carbon-rich and highly flammable during the dry season. They release high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned.

Illegal forest fires on peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan have been the source of the haze that blanketed parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in recent weeks.

Another example is the case of Malaysian firm Adei Plantation.

In September last year, a Riau district court sentenced one of the firm’s managers to one year in jail and fined him 2 billion rupiah for failing to prevent forest fires on his company’s estate in June 2013.

Adei, a subsidiary of Kuala Lumpur Kepong, was also fined 1.5 billion rupiah and ordered to pay 15.1 billion rupiah to repair the environmental damage caused by the fires.

That judgment came at a time when Indonesia was trying to show that it was willing to act on environmental offences.

Heavy penalties like the one meted out to PT Kallista Alam for offences under Indonesia’s environmental laws, however, remain uncommon. In fact, prosecutors had sought a five-year sentence for the manager from Adei.

At the time, Mr Mas Achmad Santosa, who oversaw law enforcement monitoring at the now defunct presidential working unit, UKP4, said the penalties against Adei were too light considering the impact its actions had on the health of the people in Riau, and on the image of Indonesia in the eyes of Singapore and Malaysia.

“The fines for Adei do not compare to the efforts and resources put in by the government to fight the fires and the hundreds of billions of rupiah spent,” said Mr Santosa at the time.

Green groups have continued to maintain that lenient sentences remain a weak link as the deterrent effect has not been felt, nor have they put a stop to the illegal burning of forests and peatlands in Indonesia.

However, the Environment and Forestry Ministry – which filed the lawsuit against PT Kallista Alam three years ago – reportedly said that the ruling against the firm on Aug 28 was a landmark decision considering the massive fine, which is possibly the highest ever imposed in an environmental law case.

Many are now hoping that the Supreme Court verdict would set a precedent for future law enforcement against such firms.

The Joko administration has shown it is willing to act during this haze crisis. For starters, it was quick to mobilise thousands of soldiers and policemen to help fight fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The President himself made an urgent trip to South Sumatra – ground zero of the forest fires – for a first-hand look at the damage.

The police also confirmed yesterday that 20 other companies are under probe and more arrests are expected. While the spokesman stopped short of revealing their names – giving only company acronyms – this latest enforcement action and a renewed willingness to name and shame the firms could be a game-changer.

If Indonesia does lay down the law and sees through the prosecution of errant firms, business owners may be pressured into taking more responsibility for what happens on land accorded to them for cultivation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2015, with the headline ‘Arrests over haze could be game-changer’.
Jakarta says it’s yet to decide on needing S’pore help

Indonesia has yet to decide if it wants Singapore’s help in resolving the haze crisis, said its Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

Any decision on the matter, however, would ultimately come from President Joko Widodo and not her ministry, added Ms Siti during a press briefing in Jakarta on the haze situation yesterday.

“We appreciate (the offer) and we do have a cooperation framework for that… but there is a process which goes through the Foreign Minister, then the President,” she said, when responding to a question on whether Indonesia will accept Singapore’s assistance. “But my personal views are that we do not yet need it.”

This was the third time in the last week that Ms Siti has indicated that Indonesia does not require additional resources to combat forest fires causing a thick haze, which has covered parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia in recent weeks.

She said her government has thus far deployed 24 aircraft – four for cloud-seeding and 20 for water- bombing operations, while another is due to arrive today.

Most of the aircraft used for water bombing are chartered from Australia and piloted by foreigners.

Last week, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen offered Indonesia an assistance package comprising a C-130 military transport plane for cloud seeding, up to two C-130s to ferry a firefighting assistance team from Singapore to Indonesia, and a Chinook helicopter with a water bucket for aerial firefighting.

But the offer was rejected by Ms Siti the next day. “One more water-bombing unit from Singapore would not make much difference,” she said yesterday of Singapore’s offer. “Unless if it’s, say, 20 units… then that would be good.”

Meanwhile, Ms Siti is expected to meet Malaysian Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar next week to discuss measures to tackle the haze, after worsening air quality forced some schools in Sarawak to close on Thursday.