Indonesia and Haze: New Law Goes Easy on Forestry Violations

Markus Junianto Sihaloho & Rizky Amelia Jakarta Globe 10 Jul 13;

Under a new law, setting forest fires such as this one in Riau last month does not constitute a punishable offense. Previously, it would have warranted at least a five-year prison sentence.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, as residents of Riau, Singapore and parts of Malaysia can attest to after forest hot spots in Sumatra generated haze so severe that it sent air pollution indices in the region to record highs last month.

But for politicians in Jakarta, there’s no fire. Literally.

A new law passed on Tuesday, which the House of Representatives is touting as the most comprehensive piece of legislation to tackle forestry crimes, somehow fails to make any mention of forest fires, much less stipulates any punishment for anyone setting a blaze.

The Law on Preventing and Eradicating Forest Destruction, passed at a plenary session of the House of Representatives, is the final iteration of a packet of amendments to the 1999 Forestry Law, and was first proposed in 2002 in a bid to cover all aspects of forestry-related crimes.

Firman Subagyo, the chairman of the House working committee that deliberated the legislation, said the new law was needed because the 1999 law had failed to make a dent in the fight against illegal logging and other forestry violations.

“This law will provide the legal foundation that law enforcers need to tackle forestry crimes, and the deterrent effect needed to prevent more crimes,” he said, claiming that the new law prescribed more stringent punishment than the old law.

But the actual changes reflect the opposite. The maximum prescribed sentence for illegal logging, for instance, has been halved from 10 years under the 1999 law to five years under the new law, according to a copy obtained from the House’s website.

Most tellingly, though, the new legislation makes no mention whatsoever of forest fires, for which the old law prescribes sentences ranging from five to 15 years and fines of Rp 1.5 billion to Rp 5 billion ($150,000 to $500,000).

The issue of forest fires sparked a diplomatic row last month when hot spots in Sumatra’s Riau province left much of the region around the Malacca Strait, including Singapore and parts of Malaysia, shrouded in a thick blanket of haze.

Police have charged more than 20 small-scale farmers with setting the fires and are investigating the possible involvement of major oil palm and pulp and paper companies. All the charges are based on the 1999 law.

The new law also omits any reference to illegal wildlife trafficking, which under the old law carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail.

The only tangible improvements apparent in the new law are the more specific definitions for the various types of offenses and a differentiation in prescribed punishments between individuals and corporations, as well as between indigenous forest dwellers and outsiders.

Despite the more lenient punishments and omission of major offenses, Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan said he was pleased with the new legislation.

“It was formulated specifically to deal with violations and destruction. If someone sets a forest fire deliberately, we know how many years they can get and how much they can be fined,” he said, apparently oblivious to the fact that forest fires are not covered in the law.

Others, however, were not impressed. A coalition that includes the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and Indonesia Corruption Watch has vowed to seek a judicial review with the Constitutional Court, calling the law poorly thought out and a regression from the 1999 law.

Siti Rahma Mary, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said in a statement on Tuesday that there were several reasons why the law should be struck down, a major one being the complete disconnect between the new legislation and prevailing forestry-related laws and regulations.

“There’s no harmonization between the new law and other regulations pertaining to the forestry sector, and this is most apparent in the disregard for the change in the definition of what constitutes a forest zone,” she said.

She said the definition used in the 1999 law was struck down by a 2011 Constitutional Court ruling, but that the new law used the same, invalid definition.

“The House also failed to take into consideration a 2012 Constitutional Court ruling that separates indigenous forests from state forests,” Siti said.

Siti added that the new law had failed to provide the comprehensive regulation that it was conceived for, and that if anything, it had only added to the confusion of overlapping and conflicting regulations regarding forestry issues.

She also questioned a provision calling for the establishment of a body to oversee forestry crimes, comprising the police, prosecutors and regional authorities.

“The establishment of this new body will only complicate the coordination between existing law enforcement agencies,” she said.

Emerson Yuntho, from ICW, agreed that the law would not be the solution that Indonesia desperately needed for tackling forestry crimes.

“None of us is disputing that we need laws to stop the destruction of Indonesia’s forests. But this new legislation is not the solution we’re looking for,” he said.

He argued that it appeared to disadvantage indigenous groups by categorizing their subsistence logging and other forestry activities, in many cases practiced for several generations, as being just as serious as the large-scale deforestation practiced by logging companies.

Emerson also took issue with the House’s argument that the 1999 law was too weak and that the new one would fix the problems inherent in it.

The problem with the old law, he said, was not that it failed to take a hard line against forestry crimes, but that the enforcement was virtually non-existent, thanks to a dearth of forest rangers and a lack of urgency from police and prosecutors to tackle such cases.

“What guarantee do we have that this new law will be enforced any better or any more consistently than the other one, such that it provides the much-needed deterrent effect?” he said.

He added that rather than come up with a completely new law that missed the point, the House should have simply addressed the shortcomings in the 1999 law one by one through a set of amendments.