Indonesia: Weary of haze crisis, civil group files lawsuit against government

Rizal Harahap, The Jakarta Post 11 Mar 16;

A group of citizens in Riau have filed a lawsuit against the central government with the Pekanbaru District Court, demanding serious action be taken against the forest and land fires that result in annual haze crises.

The group consists of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment’s (Walhi) Riau chapter, the Malay Community Forum, Siku Keluang Cultural House and the Working Network of Riau Forests.

They accuse the President, the environment and forestry minister, the agriculture minister, the health minister, the head of the National Land Agency and the Riau governor of failing to protect citizens’ rights.

“Forest fires have been going on for 18 years. For too long, the people of Riau have been forced to breathe in polluted air because of haze from forest fires,” Walhi Riau chairman Riko Kurniawan said on Thursday.

“The country is failing to protect its citizens. We demand the country immediately solve this issue.”

In its lawsuit, the group demands better management of natural resources, especially in the forestry and plantation sectors, which are widely blamed for many of the fires.

It also called on the government to revise all policies related to peatland management in order to make forest fire prevention efforts more effective.

“We’re not asking the government to pay compensation — we just want it to improve its management and its policies to stop forest fires happening again in the future,” Riko explained.

The submission of the lawsuit was turned into something of an event, with cultural performances and a long march by residents playing traditional Malay instruments.

The group’s legal representative, Indra Jaya, said he hoped the judge appointed to try the case would have a background in environmental issues.

The Riau provincial administration has declared a state of emergency over forest and land fires, which every year send choking smog across swathes of the country and into neighboring nations, pushing average daily greenhouse gas emissions above those of the US.

The fires are often set by plantation companies and smallholders to clear land, and were particularly bad in 2015 because of a prolonged dry season caused by the El NiƱo weather pattern.

Earlier this week, Bukit Barisan military commander Maj. Gen. Lodewyk Pusung deployed military personnel to areas where hot spots had been detected.

“We must prevent new hot spots from spreading, so we’re deploying personnel to monitor locations prone to fires. We don’t care if the land belongs to local people or to corporations,” he said.

Lodewyk said that his team was equipped with sharp bullets and had been given permission to take tough action during patrolling.

“If we find anyone burning the land, we will shoot him or her in the legs so they can’t escape,” he said, expressing disappointment that slash-and-burn practices were still rampant in Riau.

Since early February, a total of 300 hectares of peatland on the eastern coast of Riau have been burned, and hot spots have also been detected in conservation areas in Bengkalis and Siak regencies.

Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) division II head Supartono said that around 70 hectare of land within wildlife and biosphere reserves had been burned.

“People are still clearing land within conservation territory. The BKSDA, together with forest police officers, will continue to track them down to forestall the emergence of new hot spots,” he said.

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