Court finds no damages after forest fires
Hans Nicholas Jong
The Jakarta Post
The government's efforts to bring justice to companies allegedly responsible for the annual forest fires in the country have suffered a setback after the Palembang District Court in South Sumatra rejected Rp 7.8 trillion (US$570 million) lawsuit against a supplier to Sinar Mas Group, one of Indonesia's largest conglomerates.
Delivering the decision on Wednesday, the court said that the evidence collected in the case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH, failed prove its alleged criminality in the burning of 20,000 hectares of its concession in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra, in 2014.
'The lawsuit against Bumi Mekar Hijau has been rejected because the evidence could not prove whether the party was guilty,' presiding judge Parlas Nababan said.
He reasoned that BMH was still able to plant acacia trees on the concession after it was burned, which according to him meant there must have been no environmental damage.
The lawsuit lodged by the Environment and Forestry Ministry sought Rp 7.8 trillion in damages, which would have been the largest financial award ever levied against a company accused of forest burning activities in the country with the intent of sending a strong message to those responsible for the annual haze.
Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) South Sumatra chapter director Hadi Jatmiko said that the reasoning behind the verdict was illogical.
'I don't know what the judges were thinking by exonerating BMH. This reasoning is so misguided and shows that the judges actually don't understand [how to handle] forest fires cases inside companies' concessions,' he said on Wednesday.
According to Hadi, it is only natural for a company to grow acacia trees after its concession is burned.
'Because the truth is that massive fires happen inside concessions to cut the costs of land clearing and to shorten the planting period,' he said.
Furthermore, the judges failed to take into account the air pollution caused by the fire in the company's concession, Hadi added.
'Environmental damage shouldn't only be seen from the damage to land. The fire caused the Air Pollution Standard Index [ISPU] to reach a hazardous level and that's enough to prove that there was environmental damage,' said he.
The ministry's law enforcement director general, Rasio Ridho Sani, meanwhile, said the fact that BMH was not able to keep its concession from getting burned should be enough to punish the company.
'We see that a concession permit holder should be held responsible should a fire occur inside its location, whatever the cause. However, the panel of judges did not take into account the facts of the case. The fact is that fires did happen and the company did not have adequate facilities to prevent and manage forest fires,' he said on Wednesday.
Walhi legal and executive policy manager Muhnur Satyahaprabu said that the decision might have been different had the ministry demanded that the trial be presided by judges holding environmental licenses.
'Cases like this require good understanding of regulations related to the environment,' he said on Wednesday.
The decision sets a bad precedent for similar cases that have yet to go to trial, with the government still pursuing other companies allegedly responsible for forest fires that have eased on account of monsoon rains. The government has sanctioned 23 companies over the fires, with three having land-use or environmental permits revoked, 16 having permits suspended and four issued 'government force sanctions.'
'If the lawsuit filed by the ministry against BMH in 2014 was rejected, then what about bigger cases in 2015?' Hadi said.
Rasio said that he would file a case appeal within two weeks.
'The decision goes against the people's will,' said he.
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