Indonesia environment team threatened with death investigating haze

Bernadette Christina Munthe Reuters 5 Sep 16;

Dozens of Indonesian men, suspected of being hired by an oil palm plantation company, threatened to kill environmental investigators checking on fires on Sumatra island, the environment ministry said.

The incident illustrates the difficulties Indonesia faces tackling the illegal burning of vegetation to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations that causes clouds of smoke every dry season, which at times blanket the region, raising fears for public health and air travel.

The ministry said a group of up to 100 men detained seven investigators for about 12 hours on the weekend and threatened to burn them alive and dump their bodies in a river at an oil palm plantation in Rokan Hulu, Riau province.

The team was following up on satellite images showing "hot spots", or suspected fires, in a concession of PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) oil palm plantation company.

There were "strong indications" the mob was deployed by the company, the ministry said in a statement.

"With this incident, the investigation of PT APSL will become our top priority," Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya said in the statement, referring to both suspected forest encroachment by the company and the detention of the team.

"The environment ministry will investigate this and take strict action in accordance with the law," she said.

A company official, contacted by Reuters on Monday, declined to comment.

The team was released only after lengthy negotiations involving police and after they agreed to delete photographic evidence and to leave behind two vehicles and equipment. The equipment and vehicles were recovered the next day.

The investigators, however, managed to retrieve video footage shot by a drone showing thousands of hectares of forest had been burned illegally in and around the APSL concession.

"As far as the eye can see, an area that was once peatland has been converted into oil palm plantation," Nurbaya said.

Plantation companies drain swampy peatland before planting their crops and the dried-out peat is particularly flammable and often catches fire when companies set fires to clear vegetation.

More than 450 individuals have been arrested in connection with land and forest fires this year.

Under Indonesian law, companies found guilty of clearing land by burning can be fined up to 10 billion rupiah ($735,000), and the management faces up to 10 years in jail. Companies that fail to control fires started elsewhere but which spread into their concession land also face punishment.

Smoke from fires in Riau often drifts over nearby Singapore and Malaysia. Air pollution in Singapore rose to "unhealthy" levels late last month after a spike in fires in the area.

(Writing by Fergus Jensen; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Palm oil firm takes officials hostage, resists law
Jakarta Post 5 Sep 16;

The Environment and Forestry Ministry has lashed out against a palm oil firm’s attempt to stop a forest fire investigation by taking hostage seven ministry officials in Rokan Hulu, Riau.

The officials, who were investigating the alleged involvement of PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) in a massive forest fire in the area, were held hostage by individuals dispatched by the firm, ministry spokesperson Novrizal Tahar said.

The ministry dispatched the officials early last week to investigate a report that suggested deliberate burning had taken place in a Rokan Hulu forest. They subsequently found evidence that the firm had illegally taken over land and planned to use it for expansion.

APSL allegedly cleared around 3,000 hectares of land by burning, which prompted investigators to seal the area. The action evidently angered a group of at least 50 people who forced the officials to delete images and video footage that provided proof of irregularities found during the land concession investigation.

During the incident, which occurred on Friday, the group of people, who claimed to be local farmers, reportedly made death threats against the officials if they failed to submit to the demands.

On Sunday, the ministry’s law enforcement director general, Rasio Ridho Sani, told The Jakarta Post that images taken by a surveillance drone had been secured as evidence. He added that the seven officials had been released.

Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said the crime was extraordinary not only because the farmers blatantly resisted law enforcement efforts but also because of the significant environmental damage caused.

“We strongly suspect that the action was mobilized by the company, which pretends to speak on behalf of farmer groups,” Siti said in a statement on Sunday.

Siti said the ministry would soon take action against the firm as there was sufficient evidence to do so.

“There is evidence that thousands of hectares of forests were burned. In other words, the land has been occupied illegally,” she said.

The government recently imposed a moratorium on the issuance of new permits for oil palm plantations and mining operations.

Siti said the ministry would thoroughly screen companies before granting permit extensions to confirm whether they had committed violations.

“This incident has even encouraged us to do more to fight against forest fire perpetrators,” Siti said.

Greenpeace activist Kiki Taufik said the incident occurred because of weak law enforcement in the forestry sector.

“It shows that companies have a low level of respect for the government. This could indicate that not complying with the law is a common practice,” he told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

Kiki said PT ASPL was a relatively small company compared to other players in the industry. “If they dare to commit such crimes, imagine what big players could do. They could have done worse,” said Kiki.

In January, the Riau Police dropped investigations into 11 companies allegedly involved in forest fires last year. Related haze problems have killed at least five people who suffered from respiratory issues.

Kiki said President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should take drastic measures against illegal burning to show that the government was taking the problem seriously.

He also called on relevant law enforcement agencies to back the environment ministry in prosecuting companies responsible for burning.

“Complaints about forest fires and other forestry-related cases often fall on deaf ears. Don’t let the public lose their trust because of the government’s reluctance in solving this problem,” he said. (fac)

Environment Minister Condemns Hostage Situation Involving Palm Oil Company
Edo Karensa Jakarta Globe 4 Sep 16;

Jakarta. Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar has condemned the hostage situation in Rokan Hulu district, Riau province, which saw employees of her ministry abducted by local residents during an investigation of last year's forest fires.

Seven members of the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry's public order and law enforcement directorate were taken hostage on Friday (02/09) by a group of local residents, allegedly deployed by palm oil plantation company Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL).

Initial investigations by the ministry team showed that a 2,000-hectare area had been burnt by APSL workers, who pretended to be local farmers.

"Most likely, these illegal activities were supported by the company, who employed local farmer groups," Minister Siti said in a statement on Sunday.

The investigators were confronted by a group of more than 100 local residents, who prevented them from leaving the forest area. The group made several demands, including the erasure of all pictures and video footage captured during the investigation.

After series of communications with the ministry's public order and law enforcement director general, the team agreed to erase the files from their digital camera. However, the files taken by a drone camera were not deleted.

The group also demanded that the minister travels to the area before they would release the officials. They did not give any reasons for demanding the minister's presence.

The group even threatened to set fire to their captives and throw their bodies into the river.

At around midnight, local police arrived on the scene to negotiate the officials' release. At around 2.30 a.m. on Saturday, following lengthy discussions, the local residents finally agreed to release the officials, but without their equipment.

Police returned to the scene at Sunday morning to collect the team's equipment.

"Following this incident, the investigations against ASPL will be our priority. We have three important things to address with this company," Siti said. "First, forest area encroachment. Second, forest burning. Third, the hostage situation. The ministry will investigate and take firm action in cooperation with the relevant authorities."

Wildfires have been a recurring problem in Indonesia over the past decade. The 2015 fires, described by observers as the worst on record, have destroyed vegetation on millions of hectares, afflicted more than half a million people with health problems, and resulted in billions of dollars in losses.

Palm oil firm denies ministry accusation, blames hostage-taking on local farmers
Rizal Harahap The Jakarta Post 5 Sep 16;

Palm plantation firm PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) in Riau denied that it defied the Environment and Forestry Ministry and took seven of the ministry's officials hostage, blaming the incident on local farmers who were "offended" by the ministry.

APSL spokesperson Novalina Sirait said the company was being made a scapegoat because of the actions of the company’s partners, the local farmers. She called the company the “stepfather” of the local farmers.

“We are mentioned every time something happens on the local farmers’ lands. We don’t facilitate the local farmers. We are not in the position to defy the ministry,” Novalina said Monday.

“The local farmers had spoken to the media. It was not a hostage situation. It was their own spontaneity because they felt they were not respected,” she said.

“The [ministry] investigators came to a piece of customary land. They should have asked for permission if they want to enter someone’s property,” she said.

Read also: Palm oil firm takes officials hostage, resists law

She denied the accusation that the local farmers were actually people hired from outside the area to control lands by posing as local farmers. “They are really locals, holding customary rights, like the Melayu, Bonai and Domo,” she said.

The incident started when the ministry dispatched the officials early last week to investigate a report that suggested deliberate burning had taken place in a Rokan Hulu forest. They subsequently found evidence that the firm had possibly illegally taken over land and planned to use it for expansion of the palm plantation.

The ministry said they wanted to seal the area, angering about 50 people who forced the officials to delete images and video footage that provided proof of irregularities found during the land concession investigation. (evi)

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