JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Much work lies ahead to ensure that palm oil company PT Kallista Alam restores the damage it caused by burning peat swamp forest in Aceh, even though an Indonesian court fined the firm billions of rupiah earlier this month, senior environment ministry officials have said.
The lush peat forests of Tripa, located in Aceh province’s Nagan Raya district, hit international headlines back in 2011 when green activists discovered that then Governor Irwandy Yusuf had issued a permit allowing PT Kallista Alam to clear 1,605 hectares of forest for an oil palm plantation.
The area should have been covered by a national moratorium on new logging concessions, which came into force in May 2011. Environmentalists also argued it was part of the protected 2.6 million-hectare Leuser Ecosystem, which is inhabited by rare and endangered animals, especially Sumatran orangutans.
Following pressure at home and abroad, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment launched a nationwide investigation in May 2012 into allegations that palm oil companies were illegally burning peatland forest in their concessions.
Setting fire to a peatland has serious environmental, health and economic consequences, according to Wetlands International, an environmental NGO. Fires in peat swamp forests destroy biodiversity-rich ecosystems, release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and produce heavy haze clouds that endanger public health.
On Nov. 8, 2012, the environment ministry filed a civic lawsuit against PT Kallista Alam at Meulaboh District Court in Aceh, after uncovering evidence the company had been burning peatland and causing environmental damage.
On Jan. 8, 2014, the court declared the company guilty of clearing peatland forest by burning, in violation of the 2009 Environmental Protection and Management Law. It granted the prosecutor’s demand for the company to pay compensation of Rp. 114 billion ($9 million) to the state, and also ordered it to pay an environmental restoration fee of Rp. 251 billion ($20 million).
“This is very good news and a big win for us (as prosecutor) because we hope this will convey a strong message to (other companies) not to burn forests illegally, or to face the consequences,” said Sudariyono, deputy for law compliance in the Ministry of Environment.
MORE LAWSUITS TO COME
Sudariyono, who goes by one name, also hopes the ruling in the civic lawsuit will drive forward a separate criminal case against the company. Sudariyono added that the ministry had launched four lawsuits in total, involving civic and criminal charges against both PT Kallista Alam and PT Surya Panen Subur (SPS), alleging illegal clearing of peatlands.
The ministry is still waiting for the criminal case against PT Kallista Alam to proceed, as well as the civic and criminal cases against PT SPS.
In the meantime, Sudariyono and his staff are not content merely to see justice done. “The environment ministry still needs to oversee the environmental restoration by the company,” he said. “The law stipulated that the restoration must be done by the company, not the local or central government. If they can’t do it, they may appoint an independent party to do it for them, but still under our (ministry of environment) supervision.”
PT Kallista Alam has yet to appeal the court’s decision, but may still do so. If it fails to appeal or loses on appeal, the ruling will enter into legal force. At that point, the ministry plans to develop a forest restoration plan for the company, bringing in experts, local government and the agriculture ministry.
Arief Yuwono, deputy for environmental damage control and climate change at the Ministry of Environment, said it would take at least 30 years for the area to recover fully.
“Tripa should be restored to its natural state. It’s not just about planting trees then it’s done,” he said. “Restoration means that the whole ecosystem must be rehabilitated,” he added, stressing there must not be any logging activities during that period.
As Tripa is a peatland ecosystem, the main goal will be to revive the watershed that was damaged by the burning.
“We need to ensure that these peats will have enough water, or at least restore their condition similar to surrounding peatlands that have not been burned down,” Yuwono said.
STRONGER LAW ENFORCEMENT
Green activists hailed the court decision, saying it has restored confidence in Indonesia’s legal process for environmental protection.
“This is a clear message to companies working in Aceh who think they can destroy protected forest and get away with it,” Muhammad Nur, chairman of the Aceh chapter of Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi), said in a statement.
Kamaruddin, a lawyer working with communities in the Tripa region, said the decision should serve as a warning to any company thinking of investing within the Leuser Ecosystem.
“It should also be a reminder to others who deliberately burn forests or allow forest burning within their concessions - regardless of whether or not they are working inside the ecosystem’s boundaries - that they could also be prosecuted,” Kamaruddin said.
“The judge’s decision in this case clearly illustrates a move towards improved law enforcement against environmental offenders in the region,” he added.
Wetlands International described the court ruling as “ground breaking”.
“It seems that the many policy improvements introduced by the current government of Indonesia over the last years have started to pay off in terms of stopping the further conversion of peatlands, improving law enforcement and promoting sustainable development,” said Marcel Silvius, the group’s head of policy for wetlands and climate.
Fidelis E. Satriastanti is a Jakarta-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.