AMANILLAH AND ARZIA TIVANY WARGADIREDJA Reuters 30 Dec 15;
Indonesia's efforts to penalize the companies allegedly responsible for its annual forest fires suffered a setback on Wednesday after a judge rejected a $565 million lawsuit against a pulp and paper firm.
Indonesia brought a civil case in a South Sumatra court against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH), a supplier to Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the world's biggest pulp and paper companies.
The $565 million in damages would have been the largest financial award ever levied against a company accused of forest burning activities in Indonesia with the intent of sending a strong message to those responsible for the annual haze.
"The lawsuit against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau is rejected because the evidence is not proven," said presiding judge Parlas Nababan. He did not comment any further and then ended the court proceedings.
Indonesia and the wider Southeast Asian region suffered for months this year from haze caused by smouldering forest and peatland fires. The fires were largely located on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and climate officials described them as a crime against humanity as pollution levels soared.
The government alleged that BMH failed to prevent the recurrence of fires in 2014 and 2015 on about 20,000 hectares of land in the Ogan Komering Ilir region of Sumatra, Eka Widodo Soegiri, a spokesman at the Environment and Forestry Ministry told Reuters.
An appeal to the court's verdict will be made within two weeks, said Rasio Ridho Sani, director general for law enforcement at the Forestry Ministry, after the hearing.
"The decision is against the people's will," said Sani. "We had presented the facts from the field that there was indeed forest burning in the mentioned location. The fact on the field also show that the company doesn't have adequate equipment to prevent and control the forest fire in the mentioned location."
The government's evidence was far-fetched, BMH's lawyer Maurice, who like many Indonesians uses one name, told reporters after the ruling, citing the extent of the hotspots and the sampling process that the government used.
Environmental groups cautioned that Wednesday's ruling will likely frustrate other pending lawsuits.
"This will be a bad precedent related to other similar lawsuit against the forest fires perpetrators in the future," said Hadi Jatmiko, director at Friends of the Earth Indonesia, which was involved in monitoring BMH.
Indonesia is still pursuing the companies seen as responsible even as the forest fires have eased because of monsoon rains. The government has sanctioned 23 companies because of the fires, with three having land-use or environmental permits revoked, 16 having permits suspended and four issued "government force sanctions."
The government says it will also review laws that allow smallholder farmers to burn, ban peatland development and take back all burned land within a company's concession area.
Green and palm industry groups have warned that the forest fires, which cost Indonesia about $16 billion in 2015, will flare up next year unless the government issues new regulations on forest clearing.
(Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe; Reporting by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja in Jakarta and Amanillah in Palembang; Writing by Michael Taylor; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)
In Bid for Justice Over Forest Fires, Government Falls at First Hurdle
Basten Gokkon Jakarta Globe 30 Dec 15;
Jakarta. The Indonesian government has lost a Rp 7.8 trillion ($565 million) lawsuit brought against a pulp and paper company accused of setting fires that razed 20,000 hectares of land in South Sumatra last year.
Bumi Mekar Hijau, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas conglomerate, is the first of dozens of pulp and palm oil companies being pursued by the Environment and Forestry Ministry for slash-and-burn clearing. Activists say Wednesday’s judgment could set a poor precedent for efforts by the government to go after perpetrators whose fires destroyed more than two million hectares of forest this year, generated health-threatening haze over vast swaths of Sumatra and Kalimantan, and led to record levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
In its ruling, the Palembang District Court declared that the Environment Ministry did not have a valid case against Bumi Mekar Hijau. Judge Parlas Nababan also ordered the ministry to pay Rp 10 million in legal costs to the company.
In October, the ministry filed suit against Bumi Mekar Hijau, which owns pulpwood concessions in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district, demanding that the company pay the state Rp 7.8 trillion for damages it allegedly incurred by illegally setting 20,000 hectares of land ablaze.
It also named the company’s executives as respondents in the suit, which meant they could have faced criminal charges carrying prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Rasio Ridho Sani, the director general for law enforcement at the Environment Ministry, told reporters after the hearing that his office would appeal against the ruling.
“We are fighting for the justice for the people who suffered from the haze and forest fires,” he said on Wednesday as quoted by Tribunnews.com.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) also expressed its disappointment at the ruling.
“Legal order and justice for the environment and the people have been destroyed,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.
The case against Bumi Mekar Hijau was seen as a major test of Indonesia’s law enforcement institutions against companies accused of slash-and-burn forest clearing, in large part because of the high profile of holding group Sinar Mas, which has interests in pulp and paper, palm oil, property and banking.
The fires this year alone cost the Indonesian government Rp 221 trillion, or 1.9 percent of its GDP, in just five months, according to the World Bank – a figure higher than the cost of rebuilding Aceh after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
PT Bumi Mekar Hijau found not guilty by Indonesian court of causing forest fires in Sumatra
In its ruling, the Palembang District Court rejected all claims by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry against the company, saying there was no damage done to the environment as a result of the forest fires on the land.
Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 30 Dec 15;
SOUTH SUMATRA, Indonesia: A Palembang District Court in South Sumatra has rejected all claims made by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, for allegedly causing forest fires in South Sumatra.
The Ministry had demanded a fine of more than US$570 million for damage made to the environment and for its recovery.
PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, was suspected of causing fires on 20,000 hectares of concession land in Ogan Kemering Ilir, South Sumatra in 2014.
In its ruling, the court's three judges said there was no damage done to the environment as a result of the forest fires on that land, and it could still be used for planting. In addition, the judges said the Indonesian government had not experienced losses as a result of the forest fires.
The court also ordered Jakarta to pay the costs of the proceedings, amounting to about US$700.
"The implications are extraordinary. In future, those responsible for forest fires and corporations will feel they can’t be touched by the law, and their bad practices will not change," said Khalisah Khalid, Head of Research and Resource Development, Indonesian Forum for the Environment.
"When the corporation’s bad practices can’t improve, the further implication is on ecological disaster. Haze will continue to happen, and the victims will continue to increase.”
Asia Pulp and Paper was one of several companies that had its products taken off the shelves in Singapore after the National Environment Agency (NEA) launched an investigation in September into the company's role in the forest fires in Indonesia.
The NEA had sent a 'preventive measures' notice to the company asking it to deploy fire-fighting personnel to extinguish or prevent the spread of any fire on its land.
The 2015 forest fires are estimated to have cost Indonesia's economy US$16 billion, more than double the sum spent on rebuilding Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, according to the World Bank.
Indonesia to appeal rejection of US$565m haze lawsuit
Environment ministry spokesman Eka Widodo Sugiri said the government would file an appeal against the court's decision within two weeks.
Channel NewsAsia 31 Dec 15;
JAKARTA: The Indonesian government will appeal a court's rejection of a US$565 million lawsuit against a pulp and paper company accused of failing to prevent fires that blanketed Southeast Asia in toxic haze, an official said Thursday (Dec 31).
The court on Sumatra island Wednesday dismissed the civil suit brought by authorities against Bumi Mekar Hijau, a supplier to global giant Asia Pulp and Paper, over fires on plantation land in 2014, saying there was insufficient evidence.
The haze-belching fires occur every year as land is cleared using slash-and-burn methods to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo island.
The damages would have been the biggest ever levied against a firm over such burning activities in Indonesia, and environmentalists said the rejection was a major setback in efforts to take on those behind the annual haze outbreaks.
Environment ministry spokesman Eka Widodo Sugiri said the government would file an appeal against the court's decision within two weeks.
"Our nation's dignity was disturbed, we received complaints from neighbouring countries," Sugiri told AFP.
Plantation companies are responsible for ensuring fires do not break out on their land, but blazes still occur frequently. Major firms have "zero-burn" policies and typically insist fires inside their concessions start outside before spreading in, and are started by people not working for them.
Authorities accused Bumi Mekar Hijau of failing to prevent widespread fires in a concession in South Sumatra province last year, according to state-run Antara news agency.
The company is also being investigated over this year's fires, with its operations frozen in December.
The 2015 blazes, which occurred mainly in September and October, were the worst for years, prompting thousands to fall ill, and leading to flight cancellations and school closures across the region.
Bumi Mekar Hijau was one of 20 firms who were punished in an unprecedented move over the blazes. Activist Riko Kurniawan, from The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, said the lawsuit rejection set a "bad precedent".
"We really regret the decision of the judges who rejected the lawsuit, it is another failed attempt to seek justice for victims of the haze," he said.
The haze crisis also caused huge damage to the Indonesian economy, with the World Bank estimating the cost at US$16 billion - more than double the sum spent on rebuilding Aceh province after the devastating 2004 tsunami.
Court ruling a blow to Jakarta's fight against haze
Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Straits Times AsiaOne 31 Dec 15;
A district court in South Sumatra province has thrown out a government lawsuit that demanded pulpwood plantation company Bumi Mekar Hijau pay 7.8 trillion rupiah (S$797 million) for clearing land by illegal burning last year.
Mr Pharlis Nababan, the chair of the three-judge panel in the Palembang district court, ruled yesterday that there was no evidence showing Bumi Mekar Hijau purposely started fires to clear land, which then spread and led to environmental damage.
The ruling was a judicial blow to the government's effort to deter future haze culprits, analysts say.
As deterrence, the government has the authority only to give administrative punishment such as suspending the licences of errant companies, while monetary fines must be decided by courts.
Last week, 16 plantation companies, including Bumi Mekar Hijau, had their business licences suspended and three others ordered to stop operations for good after a government probe found that they were responsible for illegal fires that caused this year's haze crisis which hit the region including Singapore.
Mr Rasio Ridho Sani, director- general of law enforcement at the Environment and Forestry Ministry, told reporters in Palembang after the verdict that the government will appeal against the ruling.
"For the sake of the people who suffered from the haze, we will appeal. The facts on the ground clearly showed us there was fire on the company's concession, and the company did not have adequate equipment to prevent as well as to contain fire," Mr Rasio said.
Indonesian environment law says companies must douse a fire within their concessions, regardless of where the fire started.
Mr Maurice, a lawyer representing Bumi Mekar Hijau, told reporters: "The ruling objectively reflects what the conditions were on the ground, all facts and experts' testimonies during the trial."
Bumi Mekar Hijau had supplied raw material to Asia Pulp and Paper, a unit of Sinar Mas group.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry had alleged that Bumi Mekar Hijau caused fires in 20,000ha in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra last year. The ministry asked the court to order the company to pay a fine of 2.6 trillion rupiah for damaging the environment and 5.2 trillion rupiah for costs needed for the recovery.
The trial started in July this year.
The ministry has been suing plantation companies for causing land and forest fires since 2013. Environmentalists say that plantation companies in Indonesia often resort to illegal slash-and-burn methods to clear land, as hiring excavators to do the same job would cost at least seven times as much.
"The ruling does not serve justice to the environment and the people who have been suffering because of the haze," Mr Zenzi Suhadi, a forest and plantation campaigner with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said.
Mr Muhnur Satyahaprabu, the legal and executive policy manager at Walhi, said the judges do not seem to understand the vast impact of fire on peatland. He regretted the fact that none of the judges hearing the case has an environment certification.
Court finds no damages after forest fires
Hans Nicholas Jong, The Jakarta Post 31 Dec 15;
The government’s efforts to bring justice to companies allegedly responsible for the annual forest fires in the country have suffered a setback after the Palembang District Court in South Sumatra rejected Rp 7.8 trillion (US$570 million) lawsuit against a supplier to Sinar Mas Group, one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates.
Delivering the decision on Wednesday, the court said that the evidence collected in the case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH, failed prove its alleged criminality in the burning of 20,000 hectares of its concession in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra, in 2014.
“The lawsuit against Bumi Mekar Hijau has been rejected because the evidence could not prove whether the party was guilty,” presiding judge Parlas Nababan said.
He reasoned that BMH was still able to plant acacia trees on the concession after it was burned, which according to him meant there must have been no environmental damage.
The lawsuit lodged by the Environment and Forestry Ministry sought Rp 7.8 trillion in damages, which would have been the largest financial award ever levied against a company accused of forest burning activities in the country with the intent of sending a strong message to those responsible for the annual haze.
Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) South Sumatra chapter director Hadi Jatmiko said that the reasoning behind the verdict was illogical.
“I don’t know what the judges were thinking by exonerating BMH. This reasoning is so misguided and shows that the judges actually don’t understand [how to handle] forest fires cases inside companies’ concessions,” he said on Wednesday.
According to Hadi, it is only natural for a company to grow acacia trees after its concession is burned.
“Because the truth is that massive fires happen inside concessions to cut the costs of land clearing and to shorten the planting period,” he said.
Furthermore, the judges failed to take into account the air pollution caused by the fire in the company’s concession, Hadi added.
“Environmental damage shouldn’t only be seen from the damage to land. The fire caused the Air Pollution Standard Index [ISPU] to reach a hazardous level and that’s enough to prove that there was environmental damage,” said he.
The ministry’s law enforcement director general, Rasio Ridho Sani, meanwhile, said the fact that BMH was not able to keep its concession from getting burned should be enough to punish the company.
“We see that a concession permit holder should be held responsible should a fire occur inside its location, whatever the cause. However, the panel of judges did not take into account the facts of the case. The fact is that fires did happen and the company did not have adequate facilities to prevent and manage forest fires,” he said on Wednesday.
Walhi legal and executive policy manager Muhnur Satyahaprabu said that the decision might have been different had the ministry demanded that the trial be presided by judges holding environmental licenses.
“Cases like this require good understanding of regulations related to the environment,” he said on Wednesday.
The decision sets a bad precedent for similar cases that have yet to go to trial, with the government still pursuing other companies allegedly responsible for forest fires that have eased on account of monsoon rains. The government has sanctioned 23 companies over the fires, with three having land-use or environmental permits revoked, 16 having permits suspended and four issued “government force sanctions.”
“If the lawsuit filed by the ministry against BMH in 2014 was rejected, then what about bigger cases in 2015?” Hadi said.
Rasio said that he would file a case appeal within two weeks.
“The decision goes against the people’s will,” said he.
After loss in forest fire case, government to file appeal
thejakartapost.com 31 Dec 15;
The government has expressed its desire to file an appeal to a higher court following its loss at the Palembang District Court in relation to a forest fire case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) on Wednesday. The loss foiled the government’s hopes for compensation of Rp 2.6 trillion (US$188.27 million) and a restoration fund amounting to Rp. 5.2 trillion.
“We will file an appeal and we have frozen the company’s environmental licence,” said Rasio Ridho Sani, the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s director general for law enforcement, on Wednesday as reported by tempo.co.
Judges on the Palembang District Court rejected the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s lawsuit against BMH accusing the company of burning down forests and causing losses in biodiversity and land mass. The lawsuit was submitted by the ministry in February and the first hearing was held in March.
In his ruling, judge Parlas Nababan said that the plaintiff could not prove the scale of state losses.
“Biodiversity loss could not be proven,” said Parlas at the court on Wednesday.
The judges also believed that BMH was not directly responsible for the forest fires because the company had appointed a third party to cultivate the land.
Before the issuance of the verdict, the judges conducted a field trial at BMH’s concession in Ogan Komering Ilir district, South Sumatra, in November.
Rasio expressed his disappointment over the verdict, emphasizing that the government had submitted sufficient evidence to warrant a victory. Rasio argued that the decision of the judges was not in line with the facts.
He added that the government would keep trying to prevent forest fires in the country.
Companies like BMH, he said, destroyed the environment and public health. (cal/bbn)(+)
AMANILLAH AND ARZIA TIVANY WARGADIREDJA Reuters 30 Dec 15;