INDONESIAN pulpwood giant Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) will now have to cough up Rp78.5 billion (US$5.9 million) for damages caused by the illegal forest fires it started in 2014, marking a major milestone in the country’s ongoing efforts to stop the annual transboundary haze problem.
A report by Straits Times today said an Aug 12 ruling revealed that the Palembang High Court had earlier this month overturned a lower court’s decision to clear the firm of charges.
The ruling reportedly found BMH, a supplier of Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, guilty of having “committed an unlawful act”.
According to reports from last year, the district court in South Sumatra had initially rejected all claims by Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry against the firm, which was facing charges for setting ablaze nearly 20,000 of concession land in Ogan Kemering Ilir in 2014.
The ministry was demanding a fine of over US$570 million for environmental damages caused by the flames and for recovery.
A Channel News Asia report on the December 2015 decision said the court’s three judges said that no damage was done to the environment on the land, and it could still be used for planting.
The judges also reportedly said the Indonesian government had not experienced any losses as a result of the fires, and ordered the government to pay costs amounting to US$700.
The decision at the time triggered outcry from conservation groups, and put the Indonesian government in a tight spot amid pressure from its neighbors to put an end to the annual haze problem.
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— The Straits Times (@STcom) August 28, 2016
As such, although the damages award of US$5.9 million is only a small fraction of the government’s original demand, green groups still view the latest court decision as a step in the right direction for Indonesia.
They said, however, that the verdict is just a “small win” for the country’s conservation efforts.
Indonesian forum for the Environment’s (Walhi) South Sumatra chapter director Hadi Jatmiko said in Straits Times: “On the one hand, the court is on the side of the environment by saying BMH is guilty of having illegally burnt 20,000ha of its own concession in 2014. But it is disappointing that the compensation is less than 1 per cent of the total sum demanded.”
Indonesia’s Environment and Forest Ministry’s director for environmental dispute settlement Jasmin Ragil Utoma said: “The most important thing is that the court has declared the company has committed a settlement.”
Earlier this week, the Indonesian government urged its neighbors to cease complaining about the annual haze problem, pointing out that it is doing what it can to douse forest fires caused every year by farmers clearing land for agriculture.
According to UPI, Indonesia instead called on its neighbors to be more sympathetic, although it said it “respects” the complaints over the haze caused by the fires.
Meanwhile, smoke from fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan returned in the past few weeks, prompting fears from affected nations like Malaysia and Singapore that last year’s haze crisis – which saw air quality deterioration hit record levels – would repeat.