President forced to apologise for deadly Indonesian forest fires
A group of environmental activists, including Friends of the Earth Indonesia, has won a major court case against the Indonesian government over its role in devastating forest fires in 2015.
The significant victory paves the way for "better law enforcement regarding the environment" and should help in the fight to stop rainforests being deliberately burned for profit.
The catastrophic fires that burned for months resulted in a haze that some researchers estimate caused the deaths of 100,000 people in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
The President of Indonesia, several ministries and the Governor of Central Kalimantan – a province of Indonesian Borneo – among others were found guilty of being negligent in this crisis.
The government has been ordered to:
- issue a public apology
- set up hospitals for those affected by the disaster
- review how concessions are granted to the corporations responsible for the fires
- release the names of the companies responsible for the fires.
“This is a victory for the people,” said Arie Rompas, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth Indonesia.
“This is a step forward and the beginning of better law enforcement regarding the environment.”
Fires destroyed forests and animal populations
The fires burnt for months, destroying tens of thousands of hectares of forest, releasing tonnes of CO2 and other toxic gases and decimating precious populations of orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinoceros and tigers.
Most of the fires occurred on western Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo and are believed to have been started deliberately by companies to clear land for farming.
The resulting haze blew across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, causing catastrophic health and environmental problems.
Researchers estimated up to 100,000 people were killed by the haze – figures disputed by the Indonesian government.
At the time of the fires, Friends of the Earth Indonesia helped evacuate vulnerable groups such as children and older people.
The process then started to bring the companies and their funders to justice for burning the land.
Important step in policing plantation companies
Forest fires in Indonesia are becoming more severe each year due to climate change, but 2015’s outbreak was the worst since 1997 due to a strong El Nino weather system, which made peatland and forests drier and therefore more vulnerable to flames.
In all, 261,000 hectares of forests and peatland were destroyed, causing 1.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 alone.
Aryo Nugroho, the coordinator of the environmental collective, says:
“One of the most important issues raised by this case is the review of licences to plantation companies.
“After the haze crisis, not one of the companies was penalised although it was clear there was negligence involved. Now law enforcement cannot be taken lightly.”