Indonesia: 5 palm oil firms face lawsuit over forest fires

Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 28 Jun 16;

The government is gearing up to take some of the alleged perpetrators of last year’s massive forest fires to court for the first time. However, an environmental organization has lamented the limited scope of the action in comparison to the profound damage caused by the fires.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry is in the final stage of filing civil lawsuits against five palm oil companies allegedly responsible for some of the 2015 forest fires, a tragedy that has been called a crime against humanity as it killed 19 people, mostly children, and caused more than US$16 billion in economic losses.

Amid public pressure, the government decided to hand down administrative sanctions to 23 companies suspected of being behind the land and forest fires last year. These companies had their land-clearing licenses either revoked or frozen for their failure to act to prevent the fires, which led to the worst pollution in the region for almost two decades.

While the government has started legal action in response to the fires, it has not taken any cases to court yet.

According to the ministry’s environmental dispute settlement director Jasmin Ragil Utomo, the process of taking last year’s forest fires to court takes a long time because there are numerous steps that the government has to take.

“There is field work, laboratory investigations, calculations and processing the cases through evidence. This takes a long time because the evidence is scattered not only in companies but also in other institutions,” he told The Jakarta Post.

Jasmin refused to name the five companies.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) legal and executive policy manager Muhnur Satyahaprabu said the lawsuits were not comparable to the scale of last year’s fires.

“Five companies is too few. If the names of the companies behind last year’s forest fires were published, the number could be dozens,” he told the Post.

Providing more detail on the cases, Jasmin said the government wanted to implement the concept of strict liability, which was why it took a long time to prepare the lawsuits.

Strict liability is recognized by Article 88 of Law No. 32/2009 on the environment, which stipulates that any person whose actions, business and/or activities use hazardous or toxic waste ( B3 ), produce and/or manage toxic waste and/or cause serious threats to the environment is fully responsible for the damage done, without their liability having to be proven.

Law experts said the article could be used to immediately put responsibility for the fires on the shoulders of the culprits, even though there was no proof that the fires on their concessions had been caused by them or their negligence.

Jasmin said the government would use strict liability in two of the five lawsuits, while it would provide it as an option to judges in the other three.

“So even though the companies did something to prevent the forest fires, as long as there’s pollution and environmental damage, they’re still responsible,” he said.

Each of the five companies allegedly burned between 500 and 2,000 hectares of land in Palembang, South Sumatra, Jambi and South Kalimantan, totalling more than 2.6 million ha of land, or 4.5 times the size of Bali Island.

“We can’t choose the size of the case because when we went to the field, that’s what we found, between 500 ha and 2,000 ha. If we pinpoint a bigger case, then of course we will deal with it,” Jasmin said.

Besides using the strict liability concept, the ministry also plans to strengthen the role of experts in its law enforcement.

The ministry’s law enforcement director general Rasio Ridho Sani said he would build a network of experts who could support the government’s law enforcement in environmental cases.

“We will involve them from the very beginning, especially in cases that are complex and science-based. The support from experts will help judges understand the technicalities of environmental cases,” he said.