The Jakarta Post
Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) forestry expert Bambang Hero Saharjo has received the 2019 Maddox Prize for voicing his scientific views on catastrophic peatland fires in Indonesia in the face of harassment, intimidation and a lawsuit.
The John Maddox Prize recognizes individuals who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest in the face of hostility for doing so. The award, now in its eight year, is jointly organized by charity Sense about Science and scientific journal Nature.
“Our winners are an example of what can be achieved by one person, standing up against misinformation and corruption,” said Sense about Science director Tracey Brown, who also served as one of the Maddox Prize judges.
Bambang received the prize on Tuesday in London alongside Canadian pharmacist Olivier Bernard, who raised concern about high-dose vitamin C injections for cancer patients that have no basis in evidence.
The jury picked the two winners from a list of 206 nominations from 38 countries.
“I still cannot believe that I received the prestigious John Maddox Prize,” Bambang said in a press statement received by The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.
“Only last year I was criminalized for presenting evidence and [threatened with a multibillion dollar lawsuit] by palm oil companies that had been found guilty of preparing to plant palms by burning down 1,000 hectares of peatland. Eventually, the lawsuit was rejected and I am free.”
Bambang is credited with tracing the routes and sources of forest fires and testifying in 500 court cases as well as helping to understand the health and environmental damage caused by the fires.
He was the expert witness in the case against PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa (JJP) in 2015, which had been found guilty and ordered to pay Rp 491 billion in restitution. In 2018, the company filed a Rp 510 billion (US$33.5 million) lawsuit against him on a technicality.
In Indonesia, many forest fires are caused by illegal land clearing practices often initiated by palm oil companies. This has caused massive environmental damage and smog crises across Indonesia and neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
More than 14 megatons of carbon dioxide were discharged from forest fires in Kalimantan on Sept. 5 alone, according to satellite data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
The fires also put the health of 10 million children at risk, according to UNICEF.
“Using fire for land clearing is so destructive to the environment and the health of local people. This is what the evidence shows. The prize will give me more power to say it and to fight the misrepresentation by companies that continue to use fire,” Bambang added.
“Rain forests are under threat, but their preservation matters to all of us who care about the climate and biodiversity,” said Martin John Rees of the University of Cambridge, who served as a Maddox Prize judge.
“So it's right that we should acclaim a man who seized the chance to really make a difference – by persistent and effective campaigning against powerful interests.” (ami)