Indonesia to sue another 10 firms over forest fires

A cordon is placed near a burnt area during investigations in Rimbo Panjang, Riau province.
A cordon is placed near a burnt area during investigations in Rimbo Panjang, Riau province. PHOTO: AFP

The Indonesian government plans to take 10 more companies to court over illegal forest fires, strongly believed to have led to the transboundary haze crisis last year.

The move, revealed by Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on Tuesday, is part of President Joko Widodo's promise to get tough with errant companies found to have burned forests and peatlands to clear them for cultivation.

It also comes a week after the government suffered a major setback in court over a similar lawsuit brought against local pulpwood plantation company Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) for similar violations.

The government had sued BMH for 7.8 trillion rupiah (S$801.7 million) last year for clearing land in 2014 using the outlawed slash-and- burn technique, a method which often leads to uncontrollable fires that produce thick haze.

A Palembang district court, however, ruled on Dec 30 that there was no evidence showing that BMH had deliberately started fires.

Ms Siti declined to name the 10 companies facing the Indonesian government's next lawsuit, but she reportedly said that they were also suspected to be involved in forest and land "arson".

To deter firms from flouting environment laws, the Indonesian government has the authority to issue administrative sanctions such as suspending the business licences of errant companies.

But hitting them in their wallets - where it hurts most - is not as easy. Monetary fines can be meted out only by the courts.

Last month, 16 plantation companies, including BMH, had their business licences suspended and three others were ordered to stop operations for good after a government probe found that they were responsible for illegal fires last year.

Those fires, which spread across Kalimantan and Sumatra provinces, are said to have caused the haze crisis which affected many countries in South-east Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore.

The smoke from the fires last year also sent air pollution to record levels, resulting in at least 19 deaths from haze-related illnesses and more than half a million Indonesians suffering from respiratory infections.

Environmentalists have said that plantation companies often resort to illegal slash-and-burn methods to clear land, as hiring excavators to do the same job would cost at least seven times more.

Ms Siti said that her ministry is preparing to appeal against the court ruling handed down in favour of BMH.

She added that she was disappointed with the Palembang court's decision because BMH has damaged the environment.

Ms Siti explained that a 20,000ha land area located in a forest managed by BMH was indeed set on fire in 2014.

Hot spots were detected over the Simpang Tiga Sakti district and Sungai Byuku district, as well as Ogan Komering Ilir regency, which was one of the areas most badly hit by forest fires last year.

Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry has been suing plantation companies for causing land and forest fires since 2013.

Yesterday, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla denied that the government was having problems collecting evidence against BMH in the 2014 case. "It depends on the court," he told Detik news.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia to sue another 10 firms over forest fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe