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Indonesia targets pulpwood, palm oil firms in civil suits over 2019 fires

Fires raze Jambi's protected peat forest Londerang. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

  • Indonesia’s environment ministry will file civil lawsuits against five companies in connection with fires that razed their concessions last year.
  • The fire season in 2019 burned an area half the size of Belgium and released double the amount of carbon dioxide as the fires in the Amazon.
  • Officials say they are preparing both civil lawsuits — seeking fines against the pulpwood and oil palm firms blamed for the fires — and criminal charges.
  • However, a spate of recent cases suggests the government will have a hard time getting the money, with only a tiny fraction paid out of the $231 million awarded from nine companies in similar lawsuits.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government is planning to sue five companies, and possibly up to 16, over the fires that burned on their concessions last year. But recent cases indicate it will have a hard time getting any of the companies to pay up.

The 2019 fire season was the worst in four years, razing nearly 16,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles) of land nationwide — an area half the size of Belgium — and emitting more than double the amount of carbon dioxide of the fires in the Amazon.

Some of the fires occurred in pulpwood and oil palm plantations, prompting the government to seal off 90 of these concessions. Of the 90 corporate concession holders, the environment ministry has identified 16 as being among the worst perpetrators in terms of the number and scale of the fires on their land.

“My suggestion is [to sue] all 16 companies,” Jasmin Ragil Utomo, the ministry’s director of civil litigation, told reporters in Jakarta. “These [cases] are the big ones.”

But the ministry will focus initially on taking five companies to court this year, according to Rasio Ridho Sani, the ministry’s director-general of law enforcement.

“We’re digging into five cases and the number may increase. This year, there’ll be some [companies] dragged into court. We’re now collecting the data on the ground with experts,” he said.

Jasmin said the ministry was determining the losses incurred as a result of the fires in the five concessions, which ranged in size from 500 to more than 3,000 hectares (1,240 to more than 7,400 acres).

“We have to make sure that our lawsuits are ready, that we’re not just submitting them” for the sake of submitting them, he said. “If our ammunition isn’t ready, we can’t shoot.”

Besides the civil lawsuits, the ministry also plans to pursue criminal charges against the companies.

“There are some cases that we’re investigating together with the police in four provinces with the largest fires,” said Yazid Nurhuda, the ministry’s director of criminal litigation.

Burning in Jambi’s protected peat forest Lorendang where restoration efforts by WWF-Indonesia and the Peat Restoration Agency take place. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

The ministry has to date taken 17 companies to court over fires, winning judgments against nine of them with combined fines of 3.15 trillion rupiah ($231 million), Jasmin said. However, the government has struggled to collect most of the fines, thanks to a combination of legal stonewalling by the companies and a Byzantine court bureaucracy that renders rulings practically unenforceable.

To date, only one company, pulpwood firm PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, paid its fines for fires that occurred on its concession in South Sumatra province in 2014. It paid 78 billion rupiah ($5.7 million) as ordered by a court, a fraction of the 7.9 trillion rupiah ($579 million) sought by the environment ministry.

Other companies have successfully resisted the government’s attempts to collect on the fines through a series of legal maneuvers. Among these is the palm oil company PT Kaswari Unggul, a subsidiary of Jakarta-listed Bakrie Sumatera Plantations.

Fires burned 129 hectares (319 acres) of its land in Sumatra’s Jambi province in 2015, but it took four years before a court ordered the firm to pay 25.5 billion rupiah ($1.9 million) in fines.

The ministry had initially only imposed administrative sanctions on Kaswari, but the company challenged them by reporting the ministry to various government agencies, including the national ombudsman and the office of the president. The company’s resistance culminated in a complaint filed at the State Administrative Court in May 2017, seeking to nullify the administrative sanctions. Kaswari argued that it was the victim of the 2015 fires, which it said had started in an unlicensed forest area more than a mile from its plantation and had spread out of control.

For flouting the administrative sanctions, the environment ministry proceeded to bring a civil lawsuit against the company, as well as a criminal complaint. In December last year, a court ruled in favor of the ministry; the criminal case is currently being heard at court.

But Kaswari continues to hold out in the face of the civil suit ruling, Jasmin said. “I heard they want to sue the government,” he said.


Banner image: Fires raze Jambi’s protected peat forest Londerang. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.


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