Conservation news

Indonesian government appeals ruling on tighter peat fire regulations

Children enjoy playing without wearing any protection at the playground while the air is engulfed with thick haze from the forest fires at Sei Ahass village, Kapuas district in Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia. These fires are a threat to the health of millions. Smoke from landscape fires kills an estimated 110,000 people every year across Southeast Asia, mostly as a result of heart and lung problems, and weakening newborn babies.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s top court is reviewing a lawsuit filed in 2016 by environmental activists calling on the government to pass regulations on forest fires, as the dry season ushers in a new bout of wildfires.

The lawsuit was brought in response to the disastrous fires and resultant haze that blanketed large swaths of the country in 2015. A court in Palangka Raya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2017, and the city’s high court upheld the ruling on appeal by the government in September of that year.

The ruling orders the government to issue eight regulations as derivatives of the 2009 law on environmental protection, the 2014 law on agriculture, and the 2007 law on spatial planning.

Members of the local community help extinguish a fire from burning peatland in Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Most of the regulations proposed regulations relate to forest fires, and include assessing the environmental damage caused by fires, as well as the establishment of a team to evaluate the permits of companies in whose concessions fires have occurred, as a prelude to recommending whether they face criminal charges. The proposed regulations also call for the creation of a roadmap for forest fire mitigation.

“The government regulations listed in our lawsuit can actually optimize efforts to reduce, handle and prevent forest fires and the subsequent haze,” said Arie Rompas, who was an activist with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) when he filed the lawsuit, and who is now a forest campaigner with Greenpeace in Jakarta.

The plaintiffs also demanded the establishment of facilities in Central Kalimantan to deal specifically with respiratory ailments resulting from the haze, and the provision of evacuation centers during forest fires.

“Ultimately, we want the government to protect our human right to a healthy environment,” Rompas said.

The case is currently under review by the Supreme Court after the government mounted an appeal — its second — against the decision by the Palangka Raya High Court in September 2017 to uphold a lower court’s ruling siding with the plaintiffs. Named as respondents in the case are President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo; the ministers of environment, agriculture, land, and health; and the governor and provincial legislature of Central Kalimantan.

The government maintains that the lawsuit is unfounded because it pertains to the fires of 2015, when the Jokowi administration had been in office for less than a year. The environment ministry further said that the administration has since enacted several measures to prevent fires and punish the companies responsible for the burning.

In 2015, the government issued ministerial and presidential decrees that eventually led to the establishment of a national peatland restoration agency, tasked with reviving peatlands that have been drained for planting as well as those damaged by fires.

The government also issued a regulation in 2016 to end all development on peatlands across the country. Another regulation that same year, on strategic environmental impact assessment requirements, and a regulation in 2017, on funding for environmental protection, are among the slew of policies rolled out in the wake of the 2015 disaster. The government says these already cover what the activists are demanding in their lawsuit.

“The [environment] minister is very strict about enforcing the law for forest fire cases,” said Rasio Ridho Sani, the ministry’s head of law enforcement at the ministry. “Regardless of who the perpetrator is, they will be charged.”

The ministry says the government’s efforts since 2015 have borne fruit, pointing to an 85 percent drop in the number of fire hotspots in 2016 and 2017, and an absence of transboundary haze during that period.

But Rompas said the regulations had been poorly implemented.

“The fact that forest fires continue to happen to this day shows that the government is still neglectful and is not making more of an effort to tackle the issue,” he said.

In Central Kalimantan alone there were 66 hotspots detected between Aug. 20 and 26 by the national weather agency, the BMKG.

A woman in Palangka Raya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, holds up a sign asking President Jokowi to evacuate area residents from the haze-hit region. Image courtesy of the @twt_marathon Twitter account.

Bob Purba, executive director at the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said some of the regulations demanded by the activists were important to plug the loopholes that allow fires to keep occurring.

“Even though we can’t dismiss what the government has done so far to tackle the forest fires, some of the demanded regulations are still relevant in order to make the environmental protection law more comprehensive,” Purba told Mongabay.

“These regulations will specifically target the companies that are the real culprits behind the disaster,” he added.

Rompas said he was upbeat that the Supreme Court would uphold the high court’s ruling because the proposed regulations would benefit the whole country, not just Palangka Raya.

“Hopefully the Supreme Court is aware that hotspots are rife again,” he said.

The following are the government regulations that the activists have proposed be issued:

  1. Government regulation on procedures to determine environmental capacity and carrying capacity.
  2. Government regulation on environmental quality standards for fresh water, salt water, air and others, based on the latest science and technology.
  3. Government regulation on standardized criteria for environmental damage caused by forest and land fires.
  4. Government regulation on economic valuation for the environment.
  5. Government regulation on analyzing environmental risks.
  6. Government regulation on procedures to tackle environmental contamination and/or damage.
  7. Government regulation on procedures to restore environmental functions.
  8. Government or presidential regulation on the establishment of a joint task force responsible for: evaluating the permits of companies whose concessions are burned, based on the environmental capacity and carrying capacity in Central Kalimantan; charging companies whose concessions are razed by fires; and creating a roadmap that includes early prevention, management and recovery for the environment and human victims of forest and land fires.
Smoke rising from a forest fire in Indonesia. During the 2015-2016 El Niño, forest fires swept through carbon-rich peat forests, releasing their store of carbon into the atmosphere, and creating a toxic haze that affected as many as 69 million people across the region. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Banner image shows children enjoy playing without wearing any protection amid thick haze from fires in Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Bjorn Vaughn.

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