Investigation raises doubts over police decision to drop forest fire prosecutions

23.11.2016

Locations of 15 companies implicated in illegal forest fires Photo: Jikalahari

A decision by Indonesian police to drop a criminal investigation into the use of fire to clear forest was fundamentally flawed and contrary to the evidence, according to an investigation carried out by an NGO network.

Extensive field research by Jikalahari, a network based in Riau province on the island of Sumatra, found that fires had been started in areas managed by plantation companies, that they failed to extinguish them, and have subsequently planted the land, in stark contrast to the picture painted by police.

In July, the Riau police formally closed the cases against 15 corporations alleged to have started forest fires in 2015. Enforcement officials refused to disclose the formal documents behind the decision, but claimed publicly the case was hampered by a lack of evidence, that fires occurred outside the concessions of large-scale plantation companies, and that they had been started by communities.

Throughout September 2016, Jikalahari visited the areas managed by the 15 companies and took photos, coordinates and interviewed communities. They found that fires had occurred in all 15, and in peatland in ten of the concessions. They found that in one concession, burning had occurred this year as well.

In findings published online earlier this month [Indonesian link], Jikalahari alleged that the companies had been slow to stem the fires. “What is clear is that it took days to extinguish the fires”, they reported. “From the results of interviews with residents around the concessions, citizens who say their land had been taken by the companies, said that the fire did not originate from outside the concessions”.

They also found that fires predominantly occurred in peatlands, areas which generate larger volumes of greenhouse gases when burned and are accordingly afforded additional protection in Indonesian law.

Burned areas in five of the concessions had been replanted with acacia and palm oil, Jikalahari found. “The average age of the plant was one year. This shows it was planted after the corporation burned the land.”

Forest and peatland fires impacted vast areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan in late 2015, creating a haze that became a national health crisis and a global climate crisis due to the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

The fires are an annual occurrence and a consequence of a range of complex factors, but efforts to prevent them are undoubtedly hampered by a failure to enforce the law against perpetrators. Using fire to clear forest for plantations is illegal, but Indonesia is crippled by judicial corruption. For their part, large-scale plantation companies routinely place the blame at the feet of small-scale farmers.

Last month an alliance of Indonesian human rights NGOs announced it would take the provincial police to the Information Commission over its refusal to disclose the formal legal basis for dropping the cases against the 15 companies.

In September a large mob took a team of government environmental investigators hostage and threatened to burn them alive in Riau, while the officials were investigating illegal fires allegedly started by a palm oil company. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry said there were strong indications the mob had been hired by the company under investigation.

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