Indonesia’s Supreme Court in Jakarta has rejected an appeal brought by palm oil company PT Kallista Alam against a judgment that it illegally burned huge swathes of the environmentally precious Tripa peat swamp in Sumatra and should pay billions of rupiah in compensation.
Tripa lies with the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans can be found living together in the wild.
Peat swamps sequester huge amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when the forests are cleared and burned.
The Supreme Court ruling upholds the civil judgment made on January 8, 2014, at the Meulaboh district court in Aceh, where the judges ordered Kallista Alam to pay 114.3 billion rupiah (at that time nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (then close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the 1,000 hectares of forest affected.
The Meulaboh court also ordered the confiscation of 5,769 hectares of land managed by Kallista Alam and set a 5 million rupiah (then about 423 US$) daily fine for each day the company delayed in paying the compensation and restoration costs.
The senior judge at the Meulaboh district court, Rahmawati SH, said PT Kallista Alam had illegally used fire to clear forest land and was in breach of National Law N° 32/2009 on Environmental Protection and Management.
The case was brought against Kallista Alam by the Indonesian Environment Ministry. The fine is the biggest ever imposed for illegal forest burning in Indonesia and it is hoped that it will set a precedent for ongoing cases against other companies.
The most recent court judgment comes as whole regions of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are blanketed by a choking haze caused by illegal forest fires in Indonesia.
Rudi Putra, a leading Acehnese conservationist and Founder of the Leuser Conservation Forum, said: “The campaign behind this successful case has involved multiple NGOs and communities working together and never letting up the pressure over three years.
“This win would never have been possible without the national and international public support the case has had from people who wouldn’t accept this heinous destruction, who have monitored the legal process from the start, and who have kept up the pressure for a just and transparent result. We want to thank everyone who made this positive and extremely welcome final decision possible.”
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T.M. Zulfikar, who brought the first legal challenge against Kallista Alam’s illegal permit and now represents the Indonesian NGO Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari said: “It has taken three long years, but we are overjoyed to finally see PT Kallista Alam held to account for its wanton destruction of the Tripa peat swamp forests.
“No financial penalty can ever make up for the devastation and terrible loss of biodiversity caused by the company, but we applaud the Supreme Court for holding it accountable for its actions.”
T.M Zulfikar said the initial ruling in Meulaboh, and the Supreme Court’s rejection of Kallista Alam’s appeal, should send a strong warning to other companies that illegal clearing of forests in the protected Leuser Ecosystem will not be tolerated. “We will also be monitoring closely what happens next to ensure the fines and reparations are indeed paid and carried out in full, including the restoration of the affected concession to its former condition.”
The law enforcement director-general of the now merged Environment and Forestry ministry, Rasio Ridho Sani, told The Jakarta Post: “The verdict shows that judges certified with environmental licenses have a clear understanding of the impact of land and forest burning.”
Rasio said he expected that the verdict could be used as a precedent for ongoing and future cases.
“We hope it becomes a reference for judges hearing cases in Palembang against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau and North Jakarta in the case of PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa,” Rasio told the Post.
Orangutan capital of the world
There are only about 6,500 orangutans remaining in Sumatra, and one of the densest populations is in Tripa.
Up to 100 orangutans are thought to have perished in forest clearing and peat burning in Tripa, and experts say they are now close to being exterminated in the area.
The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, says Tripa is one of only three peat swamp forests left in Sumatra where orangutans are living.
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of protecting every last hectare of each of them,” he said. “Orangutan densities can reach as high as eight per square kilometer in these areas, compared to an average of around only one or two per square kilometer in dryland forests.
The Sumatran peat swamps have justifiably been referred to as the “orangutan capital of the world”, Singleton says. “The Leuser Ecosystem also offers the only real hope of survival for Sumatra’s other key iconic megafauna, the Sumatran tiger, rhino, and elephant.”
Kamaruddin, a lawyer working with communities in the Tripa region, said the Supreme Court decision should serve as a wake-up call to any company thinking of investing within the Leuser Ecosystem, which is a National Strategic Area.
“It should be a reminder to others as well, who deliberately burn forests or allow forest burning within their concessions, that they could also be prosecuted, regardless of whether or not they are working inside the Leuser Ecosystem’s boundaries.”
The successful prosecution of Kallista Alam clearly illustrated a move towards improved law enforcement against environmental offenders in the region, Kamaruddin said.
In August 2011, the then governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, granted PT Kallista Alam a permit to develop a 1,605-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of Tripa.
After a large-scale international protest, the Indonesian environment ministry decided to investigate the issuance of the permit.
In September 2012, Governor Zaini Abdullah revoked the permit in accordance with a ruling by the Administrative High Court in Medan, which said the licence was illegal.
PT Kallista Alam appealed and, in May 2013, the Banda Aceh Administrative Court ruled in the company’s favour and overturned the revoking of the permit, saying that it was not legally binding because the court decision was being challenged.
Kallista Alam appealed against the Meulaboh court’s decision at the High Court in Banda Aceh in May 2014. That appeal was rejected on August 15, 2014, prompting the company to lodge a second and final appeal at the Supreme Court on October 6, 2014.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal on August 28 and ruled that Kallista Alam should face the penalty imposed by the Meulaboh court.
The rejection of Kallista Alam’s appeal has ramifications for parallel criminal cases brought against the company’s director and development manager.
In July last year, the director of Kallista Alam, Subianto Rusyid, was found guilty of illegally clearing peat forest and was sentenced to eight months in jail. The judges also fined him 150 million rupiah (then about 13,000 US$), and said he would be imprisoned for a further three months if the fine was not paid.
Kallista Alam’s development manager, Khamidin Yoesoef, was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of three billion rupiah (then about 256,000 US$) or a further five months in prison.
The Coalition Team for the Protection of the Tripa Peat Swamps said: “Implementation of these sentences is believed to have been pending the appeal of the civil case with the Supreme Court, and presumably must now be enforced with the rejection of that appeal.”
The Jakarta Post reports on two other cases that are ongoing. One case has been filed at the North Jakarta district court against PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa. According to The Jakarta Post, the Environment and Forestry Ministry is demanding 119.88 billion rupiah (about 8.37 million US$) in fines for damaging the environment and 371.12 billion rupiah (about 25.9 million US$) for restoration.
The ministry, the Post reports, has also filed a civil lawsuit at the Palembang district court in South Sumatra against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau and is demanding that the company pay a fine of 2.6 trillion rupiah (about 181.500 billion US$) for damaging the environment and 5.2 trillion rupiah (about 362.8 billion US$) for restoration.
The allegation is that the company caused fires on 20,000 hectares in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra.
PT Bumi Mekar Hijau is a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper and has concessions amounting to 250,370 hectares in Ogan Komering Ilir, the Post states. According to the Post, the forestry and environment ministry is preparing to file civil lawsuits against five other companies.
Continuing threats to Leuser Ecosystem
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has identified the Leuser Ecosystem as one of the world’s “most irreplaceable areas”.
There was another victory for environmentalists in March this year when the local Aceh government declared a new 1,455-hectare protected peat area and blocked 18 illegal drainage canals in the area that was cleared by Kallista Alam.
However, the Ecosytem is still being illegally encroached upon by farmers and oil palm companies and is threatened by a new spatial plan, under which large areas of protected forest are to be opened up to road building, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions.
Farwiza Farhan of Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA) said: “Whilst we of course welcome this historic ruling, we need to remain extremely vigilant. Aceh’s unique forests and the globally important Leuser Ecosystem are still under immense threat.”
More than 18 months after the land use plan was ratified by Aceh’s provincial government, it is still being rejected by Indonesia’s national government because of numerous legal infringements, Farwazi said.
“The plan makes no mention whatsoever of the existence of the Leuser Ecosystem National Strategic Area. It effectively legalises numerous illegal roads, many of which have already been cut through the forests, and it opens up vast areas for potential new, timber, mining and plantation concessions.
“Despite the win against PT Kallista Alam in Tripa, we still have a much more desperate and urgent fight ahead of us to protect Aceh’s forests and people from another, major, and totally avoidable emerging disaster.”
Ian Singleton is one of the leading voices against the new spatial plan. “In addition to our ongoing campaign to save and restore the Tripa peat swamps, the SOCP is also trying to block the new spatial plan, which would result in the rapid devastation of most of Aceh’s remaining lowland forests. It will not only seriously impact biodiversity and regional carbon emissions, but also seriously jeopardise the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of Aceh’s four million people.
“Flash floods already kill hundreds in Aceh each year and floods and droughts have major impacts on agricultural production. Human deaths and economic losses to local communities will both increase dramatically if these developments are not stopped immediately.”
Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist with the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation, said: “Much of Aceh’s remaining forests are on steeply sloping terrain that should be off limits to development under existing spatial planning regulations. Clearing forests and building roads in such areas is simply not safe.”
The Asia chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) stated recently that Aceh’s forests were “essential for food security and regulating water flows in both the monsoon and drought seasons to irrigate rice fields and other cash crops”.
Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to the conversion of its forests and peatlands.
According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion.
No less than 10 million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.
Headline photo: Tripa burning in 2012; photo by Carlos Quiles.