By Ahmad Syamsudin
Plantation owners failed to pay more than a billion dollars in fines imposed by Indonesian courts in recent years for damages caused by agricultural fires and illegal logging, environmental watchdog Greenpeace said Friday.
The courts ruled for the government in 10 lawsuits brought by the state against timber companies and palm oil plantation owners whose land clearing practices caused fires between 2012 and 2015, ordering them to pay fines totaling 2.7 trillion rupiah ($191.4 million), according to Greenpeace.
The announcement came before President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was scheduled to debate challenger Prabowo Subianto in the second of three debates leading up to the April 17 election. Sunday’s square-off is to focus on energy, infrastructure, natural resources and environmental issues.
Greenpeace said another lawsuit brought against timber company over illegal logging carried out since 2004 resulted in a fine of 16.2 trillion rupiah ($1.1 billion).
“As citizens, if we don’t pay taxes we will be punished. But why have the owners of these big companies not been forced to pay the fines and have their assets confiscated,” said Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia.
“Compensation paid by these companies will be beneficial to the people and can be used to fund for large-scale reforestation as well as emergency health care and infrastructure in the event of new fires,” he said in a statement.
In 2014, the government filed a lawsuit against a company that supplied Indonesia’s largest pulp and paper company with timber. The next year, forest fires broke out in the company’s forest lands in South Sumatra, Greenpeace said.
In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld a lower district court ruling that ordered a palm oil company to pay 366 billion rupiah ($25.9 million) in fines and reparations for forest fires that destroyed a swathe of the Tripa peat swamp in Aceh province. Tripa is home to Sumatran orangutans.
In October 2018, the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry said it had urged a Sumatra district court to execute a court order for the fine $1.1 billion fine imposed on the timber company.
“Any delay will create legal uncertainty and violate people’s constitutional right to a better and healthier environment,” the ministry said in a statement at the time.
Agricultural fires are an annual hazard in Indonesia and haze produced by them often affect neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Air pollution can reach hazardous levels, disrupting economic activity and forcing schools to close.
A study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities found that more than 100,000 people in Southeast Asia likely died prematurely in 2015 as a result of agricultural fires in Indonesia. Researchers attributed the deaths to breathing high levels of carbon-based particulates.
In addition, at least 24 people were killed in forest fires in 2015, according to the Indonesian government. The World Bank estimated economic losses as a result of the fires at $16 billion (226 trillion rupiah).