- An investigation by Mongabay based on court records and interviews shows police in Indonesia are increasingly charging small farmers for slash-and-burn practices.
- Prosecutions surged following a particularly catastrophic fire season in 2015, in response to which Indonesia’s president threatened to fire local law enforcement chiefs for not preventing burning in their jurisdictions.
- Most of those prosecuted were small farmers cultivating less than 2 hectares, and many were of old age and/or illiterate; several alleged they suffered extortion and abuse during their legal ordeal.
- Experts say law enforcers should be more judicious about the charges they bring, noting that a “targeted fire policy” should differentiate between various kinds of actors, such as traditional farmers, land speculators, and people hired to clear land by plantation firms.
LIMBUNG, Indonesia — Tall brush has taken over the land that Sarijan farmed for decades here on the island of Borneo. At the height of Indonesia’s 2019 wildfire crisis, the now-62-year-old set a fire to clear this tiny plot outside his home of vegetation. He planned to fertilize the soil with ash and plant rice and chili.
But Sarijan never saw his crops bear fruit — owing to his use of an agricultural method dating back thousands of years. Instead, he spent the next seven months behind bars, where he says he was assaulted by other inmates and extorted by prison officials. Today, the field sits unused.
“There were beatings, and they extorted me for money,” Sarijan told Mongabay. “I got beaten so badly I was coughing up blood.”
Sarijan is one of scores of Indonesians to be criminally prosecuted for burning land for agricultural purposes since President Joko Widodo vowed to prevent a repeat of the nation’s 2015 wildfire and air pollution crisis, Mongabay has found, based on an analysis of court records from Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.
A large majority, like Sarijan, were small farmers cultivating 2 hectares (5 acres) or less. Few had legal representation, almost all were declared guilty, and dozens received prison sentences of at least three years.
The analysis shows regional law enforcers have turned to locking up slash-and-burn cultivators as a key tool for suppressing wildfires — a strategy some experts say that, while possibly effective in stopping farmers from using fire, has potentially serious human rights implications if applied indiscriminately.
Humans have always farmed with fire, the fastest and cheapest way to clear land on nutrient-poor tropical soil.
In Indonesia, however, risks have grown over recent decades after oil palm and pulpwood estates cut networks of canals into peatlands. These canals drained the peat in order to enable plantations, but increased the risk of wildfires across the landscape.
Indonesia has the world’s largest area of tropical peat, a type of soil formed over thousands of years by decaying organic matter.
The risk of conflagration rises further when climate patterns like El Niño prolong Indonesia’s main dry season beyond October, delaying the rains needed to douse fires and rehydrate the landscape.
A strong El Niño in 2015 fueled fires that burned millions of hectares across Indonesia that year. The 2015 wildfires sent toxic haze billowing into neighboring countries, sickened tens of thousands of people, and emitted more carbon than the entire U.S. economy during the same period.
In response to the 2015 catastrophe, Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, called for a “permanent solution” to the wildfires. He created a government agency to restore degraded peatlands, instructed the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to sue plantation firms liable for fires, and froze the issuance of licenses for new oil palm estates. He also, beginning in 2016, repeatedly threatened to fire police and military leaders who failed to prevent fires in their respective jurisdictions.
In 2019, the next big wildfire year, a notable increase in trials of Indigenous Dayak farmers in West and Central Kalimantan provinces sparked large demonstrations, with protesters calling for charges to be dropped.
“This wasn’t happening in 2015,” Janang Firman Palanungkai, director of the Central Kalimantan chapter of Walhi, Indonesia’s biggest environmental NGO, said of the farmer prosecutions in a recent interview. “We suspect law enforcers are just trying to chase a target, because the president said police chiefs who couldn’t solve the problem of fires would be fired themselves.”
Above: Soldiers forcefully arrest a South Kalimantan farmer, Junai, in a video that spread online in 2019. One of them says, “Mr. President has forbidden everyone from burning land. Why are you burning land?” Junai later received a three-year prison sentence.
To understand the extent of the crackdown, Mongabay reviewed the online case registries for each of the nearly 50 district courts across Kalimantan’s five provinces.
We identified at least 126 people who were criminally prosecuted over slash-and-burn activities occurring in Kalimantan in 2019.
At least 206 were prosecuted between 2014 and 2022, with nearly all charged over burning that happened after 2015, according to the analysis.
These figures represent minimum counts, as they exclude dozens of defendants for whom court records are unclear as to whether the fire pertained to agriculture, nor do they extend to the rest of Indonesia.
Mongabay did not review cases initiated in 2023, although some farmers have reportedly been indicted over fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra this year, the largest since 2019.
Abetnego Tarigan, a former Walhi chief and now deputy for human development in the office of Jokowi’s chief of staff, declined to comment on the findings.
Yazid Nurhuda, the environment ministry’s director of criminal law enforcement, acknowledged the rise in farmer prosecutions in 2019, attributing it to the president ordering officials to “create a deterrent” against land burners at a national coordination meeting on wildfires held annually in Jakarta.
The ministry, he said, focused on corporate land burners, while charges against farmers were typically handled by the police. “The police has a big apparatus down to the local level, so they found a lot of these cases,” he said in an interview.
The West Kalimantan Police told Mongabay in a written statement that farmer prosecutions in that province had increased from 31 in 2015, to 39 in 2018, to 77 in 2019. (Mongabay identified no prosecutions there in 2015; 26 in 2018; and 52 in 2019. The provincial police did not provide data for other years or a list of defendants.)
The police defended their approach, saying “the law enforcement … against farmers who cause land fires aims to show them (and others) that clearing lands/fields must be done in a regulated manner, so it will not spread uncontrollably.”
Two district-level police departments declined to comment for this story.
Since 2013, the environment ministry has sued 22 companies nationally over land fires on their plantation concessions. Judges in 14 of those cases have imposed a combined 5.6 trillion rupiah ($358 million) in civil penalties. But just two of those firms have begun to pay their fines amid further litigation, Turyawan Ardi, the ministry’s head of administrative sanctions, told Mongabay.
The ministry did not provide figures for the number of corporate executives sentenced to prison, but the number is “very small,” according to Raynaldo Sembiring, director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), a civil society group. Mongabay identified seven company directors imprisoned over burning in Kalimantan since 2014.
By contrast, 96% of the 206 farmers in Mongabay’s data were found guilty, and nearly all of them were sentenced to prison. The average sentence was 10.5 months behind bars, plus fines, and reached three years or more in dozens of cases. Less than a third of the farmers had legal representation, court records show.
Mardiono, 71, who is unable to either read or write and who was imprisoned for burning a fraction of a hectare of land in Central Kalimantan in 2019, told Mongabay he couldn’t afford a lawyer and was never offered a public defender.
He recounted being extorted at the district prosecutor’s office, where he was told that if he paid 10 million rupiah ($640), his prison sentence wouldn’t exceed a year. His family sold 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of rice, he said, to come up with the money. But when the district court handed down a one-year prison term, the prosecutor appealed to a higher court, which increased his sentence to three years and a 3 billion rupiah fine ($191,000). Mardiono served 19 months before he was released.
He said he had no choice but to use fire because he couldn’t afford heavy machinery or chemical fertilizer.
“We’re farmers — how can you tell us not to burn?” Mardiono said. “There are some people who have 100 hectares [250 acres]. I’m only on 20 square meters [215 square feet].”
Indonesia’s 2009 Environment Act says farmers cultivating 2 hectares or less — the size of a city block — may use fire if they follow certain rules, such as notifying the village chief beforehand, planting local crops, and digging a firebreak.
Since Jokowi declared war on wildfires, however, many regional law enforcers have disregarded the so-called “local wisdom” exemption by prosecuting farmers under different laws, court records show.
Of the 206 defendants in Mongabay’s data, 45%, including Sarijan, were convicted of illegal burning under Indonesia’s penal code, which outlaws the deliberate setting of a fire that “causes a danger to public welfare.”
Another 30% were convicted under the 2014 Plantation Act, which bans the use of fire by commercial planters. They include Suriana Siron, a widowed grandmother and Indigenous Dayak who was prosecuted as a “plantation business actor” for farming with fire on a small patch of soil in Bengkayang district, West Kalimantan.
A black dog guarded Suriana’s home on a forested ridge when Mongabay met her there earlier this year. Photos of her children were pasted to the interior plywood walls; some, she said proudly, had obtained university degrees while she earned money as a day laborer and grew rice on 0.17 hectares (0.42 acres) of rented land.
Suriana described how she and 15 of her children and grandchildren had kept watch over a fire they were using to prepare the soil for planting in 2018, staying awake until the flames died out around 1 a.m. The next day, however, she and some of her neighbors were arrested.
Muhammad Larry, spokesman for the Bengkayang District Court, said in an interview that the plantation law could be applied against anyone who sold their crops for money, though Suriana told Mongabay she’d only grown rice for subsistence.
In any case, experts said the plantation law and penal code should not be used to prosecute small farmers for agricultural burning.
Raynaldo, the ICEL director, told Mongabay that if such cases were to be prosecuted at all, it should be under the specific environmental and forestry laws that regulate traditional burning, rather than under more general laws not intended to address their conduct, in accordance with the legal principle of lex specialis.
Even the 2009 Environment Act, he said, was intended “in spirit” to tackle burning by larger actors, not incarcerate small farmers.
Lawyers for nine of the defendants in Mongabay’s data fought in court citing the local wisdom exemption and won. But their trials were also attended by protests outside the courthouse, making it difficult to discern whether judges were responding to the defense’s arguments or the risk of disorder.
Some judges wrote dissenting opinions saying a defendant should have been protected by the exemption, even as the rest of the three-judge panel voted to convict.
Sarijan’s lawyer, Suparman, from the Pontianak Legal Aid Institute, said it was unfair that big companies got off with relatively light penalties while farmers suffered in prison. He said he would have appealed Sarijan’s guilty verdict, but the family had decided against it fearing the sentence would be increased.
“In our opinion, Sarijan is a victim,” Suparman told Mongabay.
‘Between a rock and a hard place’
Of the 206 defendants captured in Mongabay’s data, 101 were cited in court records as having accidentally let the fire spread beyond their own fields.
Twelve defendants were cited as burning a total area of at least 10 hectares (25 acres). The biggest fire, attributed to a small vegetable farmer in Kubu Raya district, West Kalimantan, scorched 480 hectares (1,186 acres), including a tree plantation owned by the head of a local car dealership who said he suffered 250 million rupiah ($16,000) in losses.
Twenty-six percent of the 206 convicted farmers were recorded as starting fires on peat, where the risk is highest, though the soil type wasn’t always mentioned in court documents.
In West Kalimantan, four of 51 land burners who were charged in 2023 operated on peat, according to the provincial police. (They didn’t specify how many were farmers as opposed to other types of land burners.)
Defendants questioned some facts heard in court. For example, a farmer named Layur, who is 93 years old, is officially recorded as having confessed to accidentally burning 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of someone else’s land in addition to his own 2-hectare field in Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan. But his daughter, Aulia Istiqaman, told Mongabay the total burned area was less than 0.25 hectares, and that her father could not understand the questioning by authorities.
She said Layur had been unable to read the signs put up by police warning against the use of fire and didn’t know it was prohibited. Layur received a six-month prison sentence in 2019.
Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said that while he didn’t view traditional slash-and-burn farming in upland areas as high risk, burning should be prohibited nationwide owing to the need for consistency.
However, he added that poor farmers who lack the capital to clear land without fire should be given access to alternatives.
“If it’s really poor people who don’t have any other alternative, facilitate, give a warning, then teach them how to do it — ideally there would be access to finance to help them,” Herry said in an interview.
“But there are people who really need to be prosecuted,” he added. “Especially if they own 20 hectares [50 acres].”
Efforts to provide farmers with alternatives to burning have proved complex.
Daniel Johan, a national lawmaker from West Kalimantan who sits on the parliamentary oversight commission for agriculture, told Mongabay he had once tried to push the government to provide farmers with land-clearing machinery, but there was no budget.
Sarijan’s neighbor in Limbung village, Rebo Marsorejo, 75, said local government efforts to promote chemical fertilizer instead of fire had foundered because residents couldn’t afford the fertilizer. The local plantation office declined to comment.
A 2021 survey by CIFOR’s Herry in Sumatra’s Riau province found that the fear of prosecution was the most potent deterrent to keep villagers from burning.
A similar study also in Riau province led by Rachel Carmenta, a lecturer in climate change and international development at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, found that “villagers responded to the fear of sanction rather than the promise of an incentive.”
However, the study also found that efforts to provide farmers with machinery to clear land failed due to unclear or overlapping land tenure claims, a common problem in Indonesia.
Cases like Sarijan’s show how some farmers are “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Carmenta said.
On one hand, farmers face a higher risk of burning across the landscape as widespread peatland drainage and climate change increase flammability. On the other, they’re often unable to access alternatives to fire and face an unfavorable policy environment of discrimination against fire-based agriculture.
Carmenta echoed other experts in calling for a more “targeted fire policy” that differentiates between soil types and kinds of actors, such as traditional farmers, land speculators, and people hired to clear land by plantation firms.
“In Indonesia for instance, where the ‘big’ problems from fire and haze come almost exclusively from peat contexts, it does not make sense to sanction long-standing traditional farmers using fire on mineral soils,” Carmenta wrote in an email. “This conflation of fire types leads to a form of cost-shifting and can perpetuate various forms of injustice.”
Rebo, the elderly Limbung resident, said he himself still uses fire and challenged anyone who wanted to arrest him for planting rice to feed his family.
Not everyone is so defiant. Mongabay observed large stretches of former rice fields in the village that have been abandoned by farmers.
“They have been traumatized by Sarijan’s case,” Rebo said.
For the last three years, Sarijan and his wife have bought rice from outside the village, reducing their income by 60%. Whenever Sarijan sees the police, he recoils, perhaps blocking out memories of the abuse he suffered in prison.
“We’re afraid to farm rice,” Sarijan said.
By Philip Jacobson in Chiang Mai, Aseanty Pahlevi in Pontianak, Hans Nicholas Jong in Jakarta, Yusie Marie in Palangkaraya, and M Rahim Arza in Banjarmasin. Graphics by Andrés Alegría.
Banner: Sarijan stands in an abandoned rice field in Limbung. Image by Victor Fidelis Sentosa for Mongabay.
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