Indonesia: Government wins in forest fire case

Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 9 Feb 17;

Ministry wins another case in court against firm responsible for forest burning Court orders fine of US$35 million for Waringin Agro Jaya

In the fight against deforestation and forest fires, the Environment and Forestry Ministry is on a winning streak, with the courts ruling in favor of the government in cases against companies.

Still, the enforcing of penalties remains weak.

In its latest victory, the South Jakarta District Court found palm oil company PT Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ) guilty on Tuesday of illegally starting a forest fire to clear land in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra. The court ordered the company to pay Rp 466.5 billion (US$35 million), Rp 173.5 billion of which will serve as compensation for the burning of 1,626 hectares of land in its land concession and another Rp 293 billion to cover the rehabilitation cost for the burned land.

The fine was lower than the ministry’s demand of Rp 754 billion.

The ministry welcomed the decision by the judges, who “showed support for the environment,” said Bambang Hero Saharjo, forest fire expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) who also served as an expert witness for the government in the case.

He also commended the court for holding the company liable.

WAJ attorney M. Sidik Latuconsina said the company’s legal team would file an appeal.

The ruling adds to the list of government victories in cases pertaining to forest fires. The Supreme Court ruled in November PT Merbau Pelalawan Lestari (MPL) guilty of illegally clearing forests in Pelalawan regency, Riau, from 2004 to 2006. It was a landmark court ruling as the pulp and paper company was ordered to pay Rp 16 trillion in fines, the highest in any case of environmental destruction in the nation’s history.

(Read also: Indonesian government remains vigilant on forest fires)

PT National Sago Prima (NSP) was found guilty in August 2016 of illegally starting forest fires in its concession area in Meranti Islands regency, Riau, and ordered to pay Rp 1.07 trillion in fines. In the same month, the Palembang High Court in South Sumatra found pulpwood firm PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) guilty of illegally starting fires in its concession in 2014.

The high court had ordered the firm to pay Rp 78.5 billion in damages, a fraction of the Rp 7.8 trillion fine sought by the ministry when it first filed the civil suit against BMH in 2015.

However, none of the companies have paid the fines or compensation.

The ministry’s law enforcement director general, Rasio Ridho Sani, acknowledged that it was a challenge for the ministry to enforce verdicts. It takes time for verdicts to be enforced because the ministry has to wait for the official record of the verdict to be available, which can take months to more than a year. Moreover, there is no standard operating procedure for the enforcement of forest-related rulings. The ministry is pushing for the Supreme Court to issue a regulation on its judges to help with the enforcement of penalties.

“We’re still fighting [to get the companies to pay the fines],” he said, adding that the ministry was also aiming to enforce a verdict against palm oil company PT Kallista Alam, which was implicated in a case that reached a final and binding verdict in September 2015 at the Supreme Court. Kallista Alam had been ordered to pay a Rp 366 billion fine for illegally burning large swathes of Tripa forest in Aceh.

After more than one year since the Supreme Court ruling, the company has yet to pay the fine. It has also been nearly three years since mining company PT Selat Nasik Indokwarsa was found guilty of environment damage on Belitung Island. The company was ordered to pay Rp 31.5 billion in fines, but also has yet to pay the government.

“The company asked to make payments over 15 years. But we can’t allow that,” the ministry’s environmental dispute settlement director, Jasmin Ragil Utomo said.

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