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Jakarta Post

Indonesia draws the line on Singapore’s 2015 haze investigation

  • A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil
    A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 1, 2020   /   01:48 pm
Indonesia draws the line on Singapore’s 2015 haze investigation A firefighter battles a peatland fire on Aug. 10, 2019 in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra. The fire broke out due to arid vegetation during the dry season. (AFP/Abdul Qodir)

Indonesia will respect Singapore’s investigation into individuals and companies implicated in the 2015 peatland and forest fires, on the condition that the investigation does not violate Indonesian sovereignty or international law.

The massive wildfires of 2015 in Sumatra and Kalimantan caused one of the worst cases of haze pollution on record in the past two decades. The disaster prompted Singapore to launch an investigation into at least four entities under its Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA), which Indonesia said could infringe on its sovereignty.

Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan acknowledged that while the ongoing investigation followed Singaporean law, the Indonesian government would refer to its own regulatory framework that honored regional and international commitments under international law.

“We will respect our mutual agreement in keeping with the collectively agreed principles of international law and our interests of national sovereignty,” Luhut said on June 24 during a virtual coordination meeting on forest fire management.

“We are obligated to protect our citizens, but we may also punish them if they do any wrong,” added the senior Cabinet minister, who oversees natural resources management and coordinates the nation's efforts to tackle peatland and forest fires.

Luhut's statement comes as the government prepares fire prevention and mitigation measures ahead of the peak dry season in July and August, in hopes of preventing the widespread disasters and haze pollution of previous years.

Read also: Indonesia braces for peak dry season after massive 2019 forest fires

Last week’s virtual coordination meeting gathered together officials from the Law and Human Rights Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Home Ministry and the Environment and Forestry Ministry.

Indonesia is notorious for its seasonal wildfires that send haze pollution into the skies of neighboring countries, resulting in poor air quality and corresponding spikes in acute respiratory illnesses.

Read also: Indonesia’s raging forest fires, explained

Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said that Jakarta reserved the right to file an objection on the basis of sovereignty.

“Up until today, there has been no international or regional regulation that [allows] the prosecution of Indonesian nationals or entities based on the regulation of other countries,” he said at the meeting.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar added that Jakarta would not object to the Singaporean investigation as long as it was restricted to the island state and did not spill over into Indonesian jurisdiction.

In 2015, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) took legal action over the haze pollution against four Indonesian companies: PT Bumi Andalas Permai, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Woods Industries and PT Rimba Hutani Mas. The NEA also demanded that Indonesia's Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) hand over information on its subsidiaries that operated in the two countries.

Last September, The Straits Times reported that the NEA was investigating at least three Indonesian firms with offices in Singapore, Hutan Ketapang Industri, APP and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings (APRIL)

APRIL was not under any investigation in Singapore at present, said a company spokesperson who later stated that the company had contributed much to fire and haze prevention efforts.

“We regularly keep a range of stakeholders in Singapore briefed on our fire readiness capabilities ahead of the dry season,” the spokesperson told The Jakarta Post.

APP and Sampoerna Agro, the parent company of Hutan Ketapang Industri, had not responded to the Post's queries regarding the Singaporean investigation by the time of publishing.

Read also: We hear you Greta Thunberg: Kalla blames climate change for worsening forest fires

The Singaporean Embassy in Jakarta said that the NEA investigation under the THPA was ongoing, stressing that it “is not directed at any entity based on nationality, and is consistent with international law”.

According to the embassy's statement to the Post on Monday, the THPA was enacted to complement the efforts of other countries to hold to account those corporations, both Singaporean and non-Singaporean, that caused or contributed to haze pollution in the island state.

“The THPA also does not replace the laws and enforcement actions of other countries, and adds to the collective efforts to hold errant companies accountable for their actions,” the statement said.

Yasonna said that Singapore could still use diplomatic and legal channels to pursue "errant actors" abroad.

Environmental activists in Indonesia have called on the government to facilitate the Singaporean investigation and to not take sides without due process.

“We should not immediately protect [possible offenders] without looking clearly into the matter. Let Singapore investigate while Indonesia ensures that the proceedings are [transparent],” executive director Raynaldo Sembiring of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law told the Post over the weekend.

For its part, the government has won a handful of legal cases against several dozen companies it accused of culpability in the 2015 wildfires, although it has been lax at best in enforcing the fines that were sentenced.

Indonesian activists also criticized the government for filing a judicial review with the Constitutional Court last year in an attempt to overturn a civil lawsuit.

The Supreme Court had earlier upheld the lawsuit, which held the government responsible for damages associated with the wildfires.

Read also: Court declares Jokowi liable for suffering inflicted on thousands by forest fires in 2015

The pressure has piled on even further with the ongoing pandemic.

A recent study by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) warned of the risk of haze from wildfires in 2020, compounded by the current strains on state resources that had been largely spent on the COVID-19 response.

“We have to warn that there is a moderate risk of transboundary haze this coming year,” SIIA chairman Simon Tay said during the report’s virtual launch on June 25.

While Tay gave the Joko Widodo administration credit for showing immense progress in forest fire mitigation, he also urged Indonesia to keep a watchful eye on possibly errant small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The SIIA study found that SMEs were not as easy as larger companies to supervise on compliance and commitment to sustainable practices.

“There remain concerns that medium-sized companies have not strengthened their commitments to prevent the use of fire for land management and [to] improve sustainability practices,” he said.