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Lobby groups drop lawsuit against Indonesian environment law

A palm oil mill in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Industry associations representing palm oil and timber companies had challenged four articles in the 2007 Environment Law and the 1999 Forestry Law.
  • The lobby groups had taken issue with a rule making it easier for the government to sue firms for fires that occur on their land.
  • The associations also wanted the Constitutional Court to ban slash-and-burn agriculture for everyone, small farmers included.
  • This week, the groups announced they were withdrawing the suit but said they still intended to seek “improvement” of the laws.

JAKARTA — Just days after a pair of associations representing the palm oil and timber industries filed a lawsuit against Indonesia’s environment and forestry laws, they withdrew the suit, claiming they needed more time to study the rules.

But they would challenge the law again in the future, Joko Supriyono, chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI), said in Jakarta this week.

Under the current legal regime, he insisted, companies are held unfairly accountable for fires that occur on their land.

Pressure groups that had been gearing up to fight the suit in court welcomed its cancellation.

“[The lawsuit] goes against the constitution’s mandate to guarantee for the nation a good and healthy environment,” said Nur Hidayati, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI). The group had filed to intervene in the case along with other NGOs.

The business groups — GAPKI and the Indonesian Association of Forestry Concessionaires (APHI) — had sought to achieve two policy objectives. To do this, they had targeted four articles across two laws, the 2007 Environment Law and the 1999 Forestry Law.

Their first goal was to abolish the concept of strict liability, which holds companies responsible for any fires that occur on their land, whether the firm can be shown to have started the fire or not.

Their second goal was to ban slash-and-burn agriculture for everyone. Right now small farmers with “local knowledge” are allowed to use fire to clear land, but no one else can. It’s the cheapest method and as a bonus it fertilizes the soil.

Nearly every year in Indonesia, fires burn across huge swaths of the archipelago country. This is because the nation’s vast peat swamp zones have been drained and dried for agriculture. Draining a peat swamp makes it possible to plant with oil palm and timber trees, but dry peat catches fire easily, and peat fires can be impossible to douse.

2015 was drier than normal because of the El Niño weather phenomenon. That year the fires burned for around four months, blanketing Indonesia and its neighbors in smoke. They emitted more carbon than the entire U.S. economy during the same period. The World Bank says they cost Indonesia $16 billion. Hundreds of thousands of people got sick. Children died.

“We have to stop the people’s suffering from irresponsible corporate actions,” said Rasio Ridho Sani, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s law enforcement chief.

In the wake of recent fire episodes, the ministry has sued a number of plantation firms for causing fires. Many companies, for example, fail to keep on hand proper firefighting equipment and infrastructure as required by law.

Art by Prabha Mallya for Mongabay.
Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler
A peatland burns in Indonesia’s Riau in 2015. The province is a center of palm oil and timber production. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Strict liability is just one flashpoint in the larger fight over how to regulate the plantation sector as President Joko Widodo tries to make Indonesia a champion in the global fight against climate change.

Lobby groups have also taken aim at the president’s signature anti-”haze” reform, an amendment to the 2014 Peatland Protection Law. Jokowi, as he is popularly known, signed it into law as a regulation last December.

The amendment forbids companies from digging drainage canals through any more peatlands, even with existing concessions. But the lobby groups want Jokowi to make an exception for firms that have already received a permit to plant on peat.

Industry minister Airlangga Hartono, left, is depicted with environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on the cover of Tempo magazine’s May 22-28 issue.

On Apr. 25, the governor of West Kalimantan wrote a letter to the president asking him to exempt firms in his province from the ban. He argued the ban could discourage investment.

Industry Minister Airlangga Hartono reportedly made a similar case in his own letter to the president dated Mar. 30. He asserted that companies could use new technology to protect peat swamps while continuing to drain them for agriculture.

“This is about business certainty,” Hartono said in a recent interview with Tempo, Indonesia’s largest newsmagazine, adding: “You can’t wave in big investments and then go and change the rules in the middle of things.”

APHI has also petitioned the president, according to Tempo, with its branch in Riau province writing in a letter to Jokowi that the new regulation “fails to provide certainty of business continuity.”

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar reportedly favors enforcement of Jokowi’s regulation. A cabinet meeting held on Apr. 26 was dominated by a “lengthy debate” between her and the industry minister over how to implement the new rules, according to anonymous sources cited by Tempo.

“Differences of opinion are normal,” Hartono told Tempo when asked about the cabinet meeting. He said he was mainly concerned with defending small businesses.

“There is no debate,” Bakar said in her own interview with the magazine, adding: “The rules can’t be played with. Protecting peatlands is an absolute must.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on June 12, 2017.

Banner image: A mill on Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra turns oil palm fruit bunches into palm oil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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*A previous version of this article mistakenly said the 2015 fires burned for only two months. In fact they burned much longer than that.

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