Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests, Indonesian Palm Oil

Indonesia seeks re-do on court decision absolving company for haze-causing fire

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Indonesia seeks re-do on court decision absolving company for haze-causing fire
  • A district court in South Sumatra recently rejected the government's lawsuit against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, an Asia Pulp & Paper supplier accused of causing peat fires.
  • The government will appeal the ruling. Siti Nurbaya, the environment minister, plans to personally oversee the case as it moves forward.
  • The case is important to the ministry, which hopes a victory against BMH will set the tone for its campaign to prosecute companies accused of burning.

One legal letdown was enough for Siti Nurbaya. The Indonesian environment minister plans to be directly involved in appealing the court decision in favor PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, a plantation firm accused of clearing land with fire in South Sumatra.

On December 30, the Palembang District Court threw out the government’s lawsuit against the Asia Pulp & Paper supplier, a major setback in its campaign to prosecute companies for causing peat fires which raged across the archipelago last year.

Siti said she would consult 23 legal experts in preparation for the appeal. “I invite our comrades to give their input, especially in regard to data that can be used to convince the [Palembang High Court] judges that the disaster has been detrimental to the people,” she told reporters in Jakarta on Friday.

“I’ve read everything myself and will direct all potential data appropriately,” she added.

Burned forest in Riau Province, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Burned forest in Indonesia’s Riau province, on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The district court’s ruling was a bad omen for those who hoped the decision would be the second in a raft of guilty verdicts against companies like BMH. The Supreme Court had previously ordered oil palm grower PT Kallista Alam to pay a record $26 million for cut-and-burning forest in Aceh province. BMH has been asked to pay a staggering 7.8 trillion rupiah ($564 million) in fines and reparations as a result of the fires that occurred in its concession in 2014 and 2015.

Indonesian law holds companies responsible for fires that burn in their concessions, regardless of whether they started them. But large companies as well as smaller operators frequently employ fire to clear land, which is far cheaper than using excavators. Virtually every plantation company fails to keep firefighting equipment on hand and build the watchtowers required by law, according to Bambang Hero Saharjo, one of the government’s expert witnesses. BMH is no exception to that rule, Bambang told Mongabay.

The government has generally neglected to pursue legal action against companies behind the annual fires, but last year’s burning event was so devastating – half a million Indonesians came down with respiratory ailments, countless farms were incinerated by out-of-control blazes, an ungodly amount of carbon was pumped into the atmosphere, and the smoke drifted into neighboring countries – that officials have been forced to take action.

APP has continuously asserted that the fires in its concessions and those of its suppliers either start elsewhere and spread inside or are set by encroachers who trespass on company land. Bambang, on the other hand, maintains that most fires are the work of plantation firms.

Peat forest cleared for pulp and paper in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Peat forest cleared for pulp and paper in Riau. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

CITATION: Indra Nugraha. “Ajukan Banding Terhadap Putusan PT. BMH, Inilah Strategi KLHK.Mongabay-Indonesia. 11 January 2016.

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