Court decision to reject forest fire lawsuit against plantation company criticised

Court decision to reject forest fire lawsuit against plantation company criticised
Coalition of Anti Forest Mafia activists display a collection of law and environment reference books that they plan to donate to the Palembang district court as a protest over the court’s decision to reject the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s lawsuit against BMH
PHOTO: The Jakarta Post/ANN

Environment activists, joining with the Coalition of Anti Forest Mafia, have criticised the Palembang district court's decision to reject a lawsuit filed by the government through the Environment and Forestry Ministry against plantation company PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) over its alleged involvement in a forest fire in Palembang, South Sumatra.

They said that the court's panel, led by Parlas Nababan, had made a careless mistake, saying that such a ruling might cause a bad precedent for the future.

Law researcher Syahrul Fitra, from Non-Government Organisation (NGO) Auriga, criticised the panel's decision, which stated that the forest fire was something that could not be controlled.

"Actually, forest fires tend to recur. Therefore, anticipatory measures should be taken," said Syahrul on Wednesday.

Based on Auriga data, 1,023 fire spots were identified on BMH's land concession areas from July to November last year.

Syahrul stressed that the fire spots were found in BMH plantation areas, not on land owned by local residents living in areas surrounding the plantation.

The court should have been concerned about the obligation of concession holders to anticipate forest fires, he said, adding that it seemed that the judges were more concerned with the company's losses as a consequence of the fires, although the fires had also brought suffering to residents in the affected areas.

"They should have been concerned about the health impacts affecting the residents. The economic impact of the fires should also be considered, such as mitigation funds the government should be spending to tackle the fires," said Syahrul.

The judges considered the case only as a general lawful act, the activist said, adding that forest fires were more complicated due to the impact on various fields, such as health, livelihood and economy.

Syahrul further said that the panel's claim, which stated that the government could not prove ecological losses from the case, was also narrow.

Syahrul said that the judges should have taken the example from a court decision over a fire case involving plantation firm PT Kallista Alam in 2014. In the case, the panel of judges at the Meulaboh district court in Aceh decided that PT Kallista Alam had to pay Rp 366 billion (S$37 million) to compensate for land fires involving the company.

"The judges should have referred to the decision taken with regard to PT Kallista Alam, calculating economic loss caused by ecological damage could also be used in determining losses caused by land and forest fires," he said.

Elizabeth Napitupulu, law and regulation researcher of NGO Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Indonesia said that the legal basis used by the judges was not strong.

"The judges seemed to have shown poor initiative in looking at relevant regulations. They only cited several articles contained in existing environmental regulations," she said.

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