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Indonesia loses flagship case against company accused of burning

Burning peat forest and oil palm in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Burning peat forest and oil palm in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • A district court in South Sumatra threw out the Indonesian government’s case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau.
  • The pulp and paper company had been asked to pay a record sum in fines and reparations for causing peat fires in its concession.
  • The ruling is a bad omen for those who hoped the decision would herald a raft of guilty verdicts against plantation companies seen as prime movers behind the annual pollution crisis.

Round two, industry.

Four months after Indonesia’s Supreme Court ordered an oil palm grower to pay a record $26 million for cut-and-burning forest in Aceh, a different firm has been acquitted of a similar crime, a major setback for the government’s campaign to prosecute companies for causing peat fires.

The decision bodes ill for those who hoped the case would be the second in a raft of guilty verdicts against plantation firms for using fire to clear land cheaply. Dozens of palm oil and pulp and paper outfits are being investigated in the wake of last year’s fires, which damaged an area the size of Vermont, pumped ungodly amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and filled the air above Indonesia and its neighbors with a toxic haze.

The momentarily exonerated company is PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, a supplier to Asia Pulp & Paper, a unit of the homegrown Sinar Mas conglomerate. Prosecutors had asked the Palembang District Court in South Sumatra to extract a staggering 8 trillion rupiah ($574 million) in fines and reparations from BMH, alleged to have failed to prevent or intentionally lit hundreds of fires that burned across 20,000 hectares of land in its concession in 2014 and 2015.

“For the sake of the people who suffered from the haze, we will appeal,” said Rasio Ridho Sani, the environment ministry’s law enforcement chief, according to the Straits Times. “The facts on the ground clearly showed us there was fire on the company’s concession, and the company did not have adequate equipment to prevent as well as to contain fire.”

The lawsuit will likely reach the Supreme Court, as did the case against the Aceh company, PT Kallista Alam.

A pulpwood plantation on a peatland in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Outrage, dismay and disbelief were all expressed in the wake of the ruling. Hackers defaced the district court’s website. Indonesians tweeted mocking memes of the judges’ logic, which reasoned that environmental damage had not occurred because BMH was able to plant the burned area with acacia seedlings.

One meme (below) juxtaposed an image of fire with one of the courtroom, captioning them respectively, “Burning forest doesn’t harm the environment because the land can be planted again” and “Burning judges doesn’t harm the legal system because new judges can be chosen.”

Some observers feel prosecutors should have placed greater emphasis on the human impact of the fires and smog, which are thought to have killed 19 people from respiratory ailments and incinerated countless smallholdings in Sumatra and Kalimantan. “I don’t if the judges understood how badly the fires affected people,” environmental lawyer Sri Lestari Kadariah told Mongabay.

Greenpeace-Indonesia forest campaigner Teguh Surya called the verdict “very, very disappointing.”

“Getting the courts to handle environmental crimes is now a big challenge for [President] Jokowi,” he told Bloomberg. “This is a sign he has to be more serious.”