A district court in Riau sentenced a Malaysian plantation firm manager to one year in jail and fined him 2 billion rupiah (S$220,000) on Tuesday for neglecting to prevent forest fires on his company's estate in June last year.
The Pelalawan court also fined his company ADEI Plantation, a subsidiary of Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), 1.5 billion rupiah and ordered it to pay 15.1 billion rupiah to repair the environmental damage.
"The defendant was negligent in his supervisory role over the estate. He should have actively prevented irresponsible parties from slipping into the estate and setting the fires," presiding judge Donovan Kusumo Bhuwono said.
The judgment comes as the Indonesian authorities appear keen to signal they are acting on environmental offences after receiving flak from local residents, environmental groups and neighbouring countries over last year's record haze. Convictions, let alone tough penalties, for environmental offences are rare.
But officials and environmental groups have criticised the sentence as too light and having no deterrent effect, especially as the company was a repeat offender.
Prosecutors had also sought a five-year sentence for the manager, Malaysian Danesuvaran K.R. Singam, 52. Both he and the prosecution plan to appeal against the verdict before a higher court.
Mr Rafles Panjaitan, director for forest fire control at the Forestry Ministry, told The Straits Times: "We have been stepping up efforts to enforce the laws. The President (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) has ordered police, attorneys, ministries and state agencies to act faster."
He noted that more individuals have been arrested for illegal burning over the past year.
But Mr Mas Achmad Santosa, who oversees law enforcement monitoring at presidential working unit UKP4, said the verdict handed down to the plantation firm manager and ADEI was too light considering the massively damaging impact of their actions on the health of the people in Riau, and on the image of Indonesia in the eyes of its neighbours Singapore and Malaysia. "The fines for ADEI do not compare to the efforts and resources put in by the government to fight the fires and the hundreds of billions of rupiah spent," he added.
KLK had previously said it did not carry out irresponsible burning practices.
In 2001, ADEI's head C. Gobi was sentenced to two years in prison for using fire to clear land, although this was lowered to eight months on appeal.
Uncontrolled forest fires in Riau sent pollutant levels to record highs in neighbouring countries in June last year, prompting Dr Yudhoyono to apologise for the haze and order swift action to stop the fires.
But green groups say that lenient sentences remain a weak link in the effort to stop illegal burning. Mr Riko Kurniawan of the Riau chapter of Indonesian environmental group Walhi, said the sentence should have been above 10 years and the fine a figure that could bankrupt the firm, considering the massive impact forest fires cause, and the fact that they have been an annual occurrence.
"Such rulings… suggest there is no deterrent effect and there won't be any," he told The Straits Times.