Conservation news

Top court holds Indonesian government liable over 2015 forest fires

A peat swamp in Sumatra smolders during the 2015 haze crisis. The drainage canals were dug in order to prepare the land for planting with oil palm, but the practice renders the land vulnerable to catching fire. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Indonesia’s Supreme Court has ordered that the government carry out measures to mitigate forest fires in the country, following a citizen lawsuit filed in the wake of devastating blazes in 2015.
  • The decision upholds earlier rulings by lower courts, but the government says it will still challenge it, claiming that the circumstances that led to the 2015 fires were due to mismanagement by previous administrations.
  • The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say they just want the government to implement common-sense measures to prevent the fires from recurring, and which existing laws already require it to carry out.
  • The fire season is already underway again this year, as companies and smallholder farmers set forests ablaze in preparation for planting.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s highest court has upheld a ruling holding the government, including the president, liable for the disastrous forest fires and resultant haze that blanketed large swaths of the country in 2015.

The court ruled that the government must accommodate the demands of the plaintiffs, a coalition of citizens and environmental activists, for more stringent measures to address the annual fire problem. It said the government had failed in its responsibility to mitigate disasters, in this case forest fires, thereby allowing the problem to recur every year.

“In our legal consideration, disaster mitigation within a country, including Indonesia, is the responsibility of the government,” court spokesman Andi Samsan Ngaro told local media, quoting part of the ruling.

The original lawsuit was filed in 2016 in a court in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan, one of the regions hardest hit by the fires and haze the previous year. The fires, most of them set to clear land for planting, razed 260,000 square kilometers (100,386 square miles) of land across the country, much of it carbon-rich peat forests, and sent clouds of choking haze billowing across large parts of Indonesia and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

During the height of the fires, daily carbon dioxide emissions from the burning alone exceeded emissions from all economic activity in the United States. The World Bank estimated that the fires that year cost Indonesia $16 billion in losses just from the disruption to economic activity.

Firefighters extinguish fires in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

Survivors’ lawsuit

Arie Rompas, a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court, which upholds the earlier rulings of two lower courts in Palangka Raya, the Central Kalimantan capital.

He said the lawsuit was born out of the frustration that he and fellow residents of Palangka Raya felt about the 2015 fires and the government’s seeming inability to get the problem under control.

“We are survivors but we also had to evacuate victims who were vulnerable and help provide others with medication, because the government wasn’t there [to help us] at that time,” he told local media. “We also had to save our families to evacuate them from a very difficult situation at that time. Therefore, one of the options that we took was to bring those responsible for this situation to the court.”

Mariaty A. Nun, another plaintiff and resident of Palangka Raya, said she hoped the ruling would spell the end of forest fires in the province.

“The annual forest fires and haze have violated the most basic rights of citizens, which is the right to breathe,” she said. “Therefore, with this verdict being legally binding, we hope the government makes sure there’s no repeat of forest fires and haze and to make sure that the cost for medical treatment isn’t borne by the victims.”

But the ruling comes just as this year’s fire season gets into full swing, with hotspots reported across Central Kalimantan and haze once again shrouding Palangka Raya.

According to an analysis by Greenpeace, there’s a 52 percent increase in the number of fire hotspots in Kalimantan from the period January – June this year, compared to the same period last year.

Greenpeace analysis also shows that, so far this July, Central Kalimantan is once again among the provinces with the highest numbers of fires hotspots, with 152 hotspots detected.

“Many [residents] are suffering from lung diseases,” Dimas Hartono, the head of the provincial chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Central Kalimantan told local media. “They’ve even had to leave their villages.”

Now, as in 2015, the government has instructed children to wear masks and stay indoors after school to reduce their exposure to the haze.

Arie said other, more urgent, actions were needed, including cracking down on those found to be setting fires, naming and shaming the companies on whose lands the fires were burning, and providing adequate shelters for residents forced to evacuate from their homes.

“The land and forest fires, including in Central Kalimantan, still happen,” he said. “They have appeared again and continue to be a threat.”

Children in villages near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, wearing masks during a haze episode. Image by Lina A. Karolina.

Not backing down

The government has now lost the lawsuit three times — at the Palangka Raya administrative court; an appeal to the Palangka Raya high court; and now at the Supreme Court — but still hasn’t given up.

Instead, it plans to file a case review, a final avenue of legal recourse that’s permitted if there’s new evidence or circumstances.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said that while the government respected the Supreme Court’s ruling, it intended to challenge it in light of the various policies adopted since the 2015 fire episode to address the problem. She blamed the 2015 fires on decades of mismanagement of the country’s forestry and agriculture sector, saying the problem was something that President Joko Widodo had inherited when he took office in 2014.

“Because [we] had just come into office [when the fires started in 2015], of course we all had to study the causes first. What’s wrong and where were the mistakes? It turned out that there were many past mistakes and [the president] actually fixed those mistakes,” Siti said in a statement.

“There were companies clearing land with contractors by ordering locals to burn, and then they ran away,” she added. “This happened and kept happening. In the past, law enforcement was very weak and land management was all over the place. There were big companies that didn’t have fire-extinguishing equipment.”

Since then, she said, the government has overhauled the way it addresses forest fires, adopting an approach that prioritizes prevention over reaction. This includes an ambitious initiative, launched in 2016, to restore degraded peatlands across the country to make them less prone to catching fire. (A study earlier this year found the program to be severely underfunded with respect to its massive scope.)

The government also ramped up law enforcement efforts against companies found to have fires on their concessions. To date, courts have ordered these companies pay a combined 18 trillion rupiah ($1.3 billion), but none have paid up.

Siti said these policies had led to a decline in the number of hotspots and area of land burned since 2015. “Indonesia, which used to be known for its peat that’s repeatedly burned, is now becoming a reference for other countries to learn,” she said.

Activists and researchers, though, attribute the drop in the number and extent of fires to milder weather in the intervening years, saying the government lucked out after a particularly harsh dry season in 2015 fueled by an El Niño weather system.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks in front of the media accompanied by Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on his left. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian government.

Holding government to account

Regardless of whether it pursues a case review, the government should still focus on implementing the Supreme Court’s ruling as part of long-term mitigation measures, says Arie of Greenpeace Indonesia.

“It’ll have a more positive benefit than taking another legal attempt, such as a case review,” he said. “If the case review [proceeds], what else does [the government] want to show as new evidence?”

Safrudin Mahendra, the executive director of the environmental NGO Save Our Borneo (SOB), said citizens shouldn’t be compelled to sue the government just to get it to provide common-sense services for the good of the public.

“All of the demands in the lawsuit aren’t things that will harm the government,” he said. “They’re actually aimed at improving the management of the forests.”

Safrudin also pointed out that the plaintiffs’ demands were for measures already mandated by existing laws, which the government is obliged to undertake anyway, such as providing shelter for victims of fire and haze and disclosing the names of companies whose concessions are burning.

“If the government meets these demands, then its reputation will improve in the eyes of the public,” he said.

Henri Subagiyo, the executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), agreed, saying the plaintiffs weren’t asking for “anything outrageous.”

“They’re asking for regulations that should have been issued based on the law itself,” he said.

He added the court’s ruling could form the basis for the government to boost its policies in combating forest fires.

“With this ruling, the government needs to see again which efforts needed to be strengthened, such as speeding up the issuance of regulations as demanded by the citizens,” he said.

Another key thing that the government could improve upon is the lack of transparency in the country’s plantation industry, fueled by the government’s dogged reluctance to share information on palm oil concessions to the public.

More than two years ago, Indonesia’s highest court ruled that the government should make information on palm oil concessions available to the public.

However, ministers in the President’s administration continue to defy this decision and have recently explicitly ordered palm oil companies not to share information regarding the plantation concessions they own, citing national security, privacy and competition reasons.

Activists argue that the release of such data would make it significantly easier to identify who controls land where forest fires continue to occur.

“By fighting this verdict, Jokowi [Joko Widodo’s popular nickname] is aligning with plantation companies’ interests and putting their profits above the health and environment of Indonesia,” Arie said.

Nur Hidayati, the executive director of Walhi, said accepting the court’s ruling would show the government’s seriousness in improving the situation.

“If President Jokowi is serious about correcting the wrongdoing of 2015 and is ready to fix forest governance, he must accept this landmark decision,” she said. “Recognizing past negligence is the only way forward to protect citizens’ health and future.”

Banner image: A peat swamp in Sumatra smolders during the 2015 haze crisis. The drainage canals were dug in order to prepare the land for planting with oil palm, but the practice renders the land vulnerable to catching fire. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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