Indonesia: More firms to be on lawsuit list for causing haze

Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 13 Aug 16;

The government is preparing more lawsuits against some of the alleged perpetrators of last year’s massive forest fires following a recent landmark ruling that sets a precedent for the upcoming legal battles.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry is set to file civil lawsuits against four palm oil companies allegedly responsible for some of the 2015 forest fires, a tragedy seen as a crime against humanity after they caused the deaths of 19 people, mostly children, and brought about US$16 billion in economic losses.

“It’s almost final. We just have to look at it again because we have to be careful and learn from existing processes,” the ministry’s environmental dispute settlement director, Jasmin Ragil Utomo, told The Jakarta Post.

Each of the four companies allegedly burned between 500 and 1,800 hectares of land in Palembang in South Sumatra, Jambi and South Kalimantan.

The ministry’s Directorate General of Law Enforcement has already filed one lawsuit against palm oil company PT Waringin Agro Jaya in South Sumatra at the South Jakarta District Court on July 18.

As for the four lawsuits, the ministry will use the concept of strict liability in two cases, according to Ragil. The concept means that companies can be held responsible for fires in their concessions, even if there is no proof that the fires were caused by them or their negligence.

Experts believe the concept is the key to upholding justice in environmental cases given that in many cases, the court has ruled in favor of companies as a result of the difficulties in proving that the fires were caused by concession holders.

The government has gained more confidence in using the concept after a panel of judges used it when handing down its verdict against plantation company PT National Sago Prima (NSP), ordering the firm to pay a record fine of Rp 1.07 trillion (US$81 million) for forest fires on its concession in the Meranti Islands regency, Riau.

The ground-breaking verdict is expected to set a precedent for future cases, as it marks the first time a court has used the concept of strict liability in an environmental case, as well as imposing a fine of more than Rp 1 trillion.

Ragil said the government had not included the strict liability concept in its lawsuit against PT NSP, a subsidiary of publicly listed plantation firm PT Sampoerna Agro, and that it was the judges’ initiative to use the concept.

Instead, the government used the unlawful misconduct concept, accusing PT NSP of violating Forestry Ministerial Regulation No. 12/2009, which states that concession holders are responsible for fires on their concessions.

“Even though the lawsuit used the unlawful misconduct concept, the judges concluded that what was initially unlawful misconduct was strict liability,” Ragil said.

According to lawyer Patra M. Zen, who represented the government in the case, the ministerial regulation was pivotal in winning the case, as it allows culprits to be held directly responsible for the fires, even with a lack of proof that they are responsible.

He added that the government was fortunate to have judges that understood the concept of strict liability.

A fire expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, Bambang Hero Saharjo, who also stood as an expert witness for the case, said it was apparent that PT NSP had not fulfilled its obligation to prevent forest fires in its concession.

PT NSP was among 17 companies audited by the now defunct presidential working unit for the supervision and management of development ( UKP4 ) in 2014.

The audit found that none of the companies had passed the compliance test, which measured the companies’ level of compliance with environmental regulations.

Most of them lacked adequate facilities and the infrastructure needed to prevent forest fires.

PT NSP’s legal representatives, law firm Lubis Ganie Surowidjojo, said the verdict was unjust because it did not take into account scientific opinions from experts presented by the defendant.

“This was proven by a dissenting opinion from one of the judges [I Ketut Tirta], who is competent in environmental issues,” the law firm said.

Ministry of Environment and Forestry Wins Wildfire Lawsuit
Ari Supriyanti Rikin & Ratri M. Siniwi Jakarta Globe 13 Aug 16;

Jakarta. Sampoerna Strategic Group's agribusiness venture National Sago Prima (NSP) will have to pay damages and recovery costs of more than Rp 1 trillion ($76 million) after losing a civil lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the South Jakarta District Court ordered on Thursday (11/08).

The lawsuit was filed to the court on Oct. 2 last year after 3,000 hectares of peat lands and forest were deliberately set on fire in the company's palm oil concession area in Riau's Meranti Islands.

The case is the first legal fight won by the ministry and gives hope for justice to other communities who have also suffered from wildfires.

"This is a historical moment in our fight to enforce human rights – the constitutional right for everyone to live in a safe and healthy environment," the ministry's director general of law enforcement, Rasio Ridho Sani, said on Friday (12/08).

In the verdict, the South Jakarta District Court sentenced NSP to pay Rp 319,168 billion in compensation and to pay for Rp 753 billion worth of remedial action.

According to forestry expert and a witness in the case, Bambang Hero Saharjo, the compensation package was calculated to cover several issues, including ecological damage, opportunity cost, loss of biological diversity and carbon pollution.

In their verdict, the judges referred to a 2009 Ministry of Environment and Forestry regulation on forest fire control.

"When a company requests a forest concession, they have a responsibility to prevent or put out forest fires," said the ministry's attorney, Patra Zen.

According to Patra, NSP never did anything to prevent wildfires, had not built a single fire lookout tower and had no team ready to administer first responses in hazardous emergencies.

The ministry had also filed lawsuits against two other companies widely thought to have started a series of wild fires last year as well — Asia Pulp and Paper supplier Bumi Mekar Hijau and palm oil producer Jatim Jaya Perkasa.

NSP found guilty in forest fire, punished with compensation
Antara 12 Aug 16;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - A Jakarta district court on Friday found PT National Sago Prima (NSP) guilty of forest and bush fires and ordered the sago starch producer to pay a total of Rp1.07 trillion to the state in compensation.

The South Jakarta District Court decided on Thursday in favor of the lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Forestry and Environment, against the subsidiary of PT Sampoerna Agro over forest and bush fires destroying 3,000 hectares of peat lands in the companys forest concession on the island of Mernati, Riau in October 2015.

"After a long process of court investigations, the South Jakarta district court decided yesterday to punish National Sago Prima ordering it to pay a compensation of Rp319,168,422,500," Director General of Law Enforcement of the Forestry and Environment Ministry Rasio Ridho Sani told a news conference here on Friday.

Rasio said in addition to paying Rp319 billion in compensation, NSP was also ordered to pay Rp753 billion for recovery of the damage to the land.

The lawyer of the forestry and environment ministry Patra M. Zen said the court decided almost the same as demanded by the ministry.

Patra said if NSP failed to pay the compensation it is required to pay a fine of Rp50 million per day.

Meanwhile, forest expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture Bambang Heru who stood as expert witness in the case said the losses included losses in ecology and opportunity cost

"Losses in ecology was caused by the fire on the peat land. We calculate the role of peat land in holding water, preventing erosion and in maintaining biodiversity," Bambang said.

The forest and bush fire destroyed the peat at a thickness of almost 10 centimeters and could not be fully recovered, he said.

In addition , there were nearly Rp700 billion sacrificed as a result of the forest and bush fires over the concession area of NSP, he said.

NSP, however, has decided to appeal the verdict that the court order could not yet immediately executed by the prosecutor.

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