The Jakarta Post
Indonesia's long fight against forest and land fires has taken a new twist after the Supreme Court found company Kalista Alam guilty of deliberately burning peatland in 2012, and fined it a record Rp 366 billion (US$25.8 million). This should be enough to force the oil palm plantation company based in the Aceh regency of Nagan Raya to declare bankruptcy.
It is not an exaggeration to call the court ruling a landmark in the nation's efforts to enforce the law against people and corporations whose acts have not only threatened many lives, but also inflicted huge losses in the form of environmental degradation. Two children in Jambi died last week of respiratory infection, almost certainly due to constant exposure to smoke from forest fires. Haze from the fires has also prevented thousands of children from attending school, delayed or canceled flights and dragged economic and social activities to a halt in Sumatra and Kalimantan. In Sukabumi, West Java, a fire fighter died of exhaustion and smoke inhalation while battling a wildfire in Cikepuh sanctuary last week.
Increasing enforcement of the law is only one challenge among others that Indonesia must take on in its bid to protect its remaining forests. The existing legislation is more than sufficient to bring prosecutions to court, and there are abundant international treaties that forest and land burners are violating.
Try naming any individuals or corporations who have come under investigation for starting forest fires over the past two decades, or since the worst fires scorched Indonesian forests in 1997. Only a few have stood trial, and those convicted were even fewer. Unsurprisingly, green groups suspect bribes have spared the forest and land burners from facing justice.
It's difficult to prove the existence of bribery. However, what is certain is that the lack, if not total absence, of legal deterrents is partly responsible for Indonesia's failure to settle the forest fire issue once and for all. The disaster repeats itself every year in the same regions, with the same modus operandi and perhaps the same masterminds behind it. On the other hand, the government's attempt to educate communities living near forests to stop land clearing through burning remains ineffective.
The fact that most perpetrators have escaped justice, or at most received light sentences, sends the message that Indonesia's justice system does not take forest burning, or environmental conservation in general, into consideration.
The Supreme Court has set a good precedent with its Aug. 28 decision that turned down PT Kalista's appeal. All district and high courts now have a clear reference when hearing cases involving forest and land fires that have had a negative impact on surrounding communities and ecosystems. Such judgments, however, will require investigators and state prosecutors to present all necessary evidence to convince the judges.
Only law enforcers with a blend of integrity and competence can do that. The police have named 107 individuals and corporations suspects in environmental law cases, but the real test awaits in the court hearings.
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