Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Activists have reported four companies – two industrial forest firms and two palm oil firms – to the local police over fires in their concessions in Central Kalimantan as Indonesia is grappling with its worst fire episode since 2019.
According to satellite image analysis done Sept. 2-10, the activists found a total of 3,650 hectares (9,000 acres) of burning in the four concessions.
The two pulpwood firms are PT Industrial Forest Plantation (IFP) and PT Rimbun Seruyan, with 441 hectares (1,100 acres) and 2,055 hectares (5,100 acres), respectively, of identified burning.
The two palm oil companies are PT Karya Luhur Sejati (KLS) and PT Globalindo Agung Lestari (GAL). There were 1,122 hectares (2,800 acres) of fires detected in the former and 32 hectares (79 acres) in the latter.
Most of the fires are in concessions that haven't been cultivated yet, according to environmental NGO Save Our Borneo (SOB) director Muhammad Habibi.
These four concessions were also burned during the 2019 great fire episode, when 1.6 million hectares (3.95 million acres) of lands and forests in Indonesia were up in flames.
This year's fire season is expected to be the worst since 2019, due to unusually scorching weather as a result of an El Nino system. Haze from this year's fires continues to shutter schools and sicken thousands across Sumatra and Borneo.
After the 2019 fire season, some of the burned concessions had been planted with palm oil trees, indicating an intentional burning, said Bayu Herinata, the Central Kalimantan director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
However, these companies have never been prosecuted for the repeat burning in their concessions, he said.
"The Central Kalimantan police hasn't enforced the law on these big actors or companies," Bayu said during a recent press conference. "They haven't named any company suspect [in the fire cases]."
Even if these companies weren't the ones that set the fires, they could still be prosecuted, according to Aryo Nugroho, the director of Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) Palangkaraya.
This is because companies are strictly liable for fires that occur on their land, even fires that start outside the concession boundaries, as stipulated in the 2009 environmental law.
"If these four companies have preventive [measures], then there's no way the burning could reach thousands of hectares," Aryo said.
The concept of strict liability has since been used to sue companies for such fires, regardless of whether their negligence can be shown to have caused the burning – given that such evidence is difficult to produce.
"There's negligence," Aryo said. "Many [companies] argue that they've tried to extinguish fires and yet the burning still spread. It needs to be checked whether the facilities [to prevent and extinguish fires] are adequate or not. If they're not up to standard, then there's negligence. So that's what we're reporting, not the act of burning itself."
Furthermore, by having their concessions burned, these companies have also polluted the environment and the air, which itself is a crime, he added.
Therefore, activists from SOB, LBH Palangkaraya and Walhi Central Kalimantan filed a report with the police against the four companies.
Aryo said in 2015, the local police had actually named three companies as suspect, but it eventually dropped the case under the argument that the fires were located outside their concession boundaries.
This time, all four companies that the activists reported to the police had fires within their concession boundaries, he said.
"So there's no more excuse [to dismiss the report]," Aryo said.
Besides the repeated burning, some of the four companies also have a history of deforestation and illegal activities.
For instance, AidEnvironment identifed IFP as the second-largest deforester in the industrial forest plantation sector of 2023 as it cleared nearly 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of forest between January and June this year.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace identified both KLS and GAL in 2021 as operating illegal plantations.
According to the Greenpeace report, KLS operated 288 hectares (710 acres) of plantation within protected forest areas, whereas GAL cultivated 111 hectares (270 acres) of plantation in conservation areas and 1,217 hectares (3,000 acres) in protected forest areas.
Activists and lawmakers have been calling for the government to prosecute companies over fires in their areas, as burning often occurs within companies' concession boundaries.
From January to September 2023, Walhi identified 184,223 fire spots in 642,099 hectares (1.58 million acres) of land in Indonesia. Most of the fire spots are located within the concessions of 194 companies, and 38 of these concessions have a history of fires between 2015 and 2020.
It's important for the government to crack down on these burning concessions to deter companies from having their areas burned again in the future, Walhi forest and plantation campaign manager Uli Arta Siagian said.
"Land and forest fire is an extraordinary crime. The president and his ministers shouldn't act like firefighters who only work when there are fires," she said. "If [the government] doesn't dare to enforce the law by evaluating all licenses, revoking the permits of unruly companies, imposing criminal sanctions, enforcing court rulings and blacklisting firms that repeatedly burn lands, then we will still face the issue of fires in the next 10 years."
Ahmad Sahroni, the deputy chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing legal affairs, meanwhile, called for tougher police action against companies.
"I am asking the police and all related officials to be decisive and look not only for those who start fires, but also the companies behind them," he told fellow lawmakers. "They must go all out so that land fires do not become our agenda every year.
"This duty is not just about land and forests, but also about the safety of millions of Indonesians," Sahroni added. "If this continues, it is a certainty that people will be hit with respiratory disease."
Throughout 2023, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has sealed 39 burning areas, with 29 of them identified as concessions. Five of the concessions are owned by companies from Singapore, Malaysia and China.
The ministry has also issued 220 letters that warn concession holders to prevent and mitigate fires in their areas, according to the ministry's head of law enforcement department, Rasio Ridho Sani.
"We remind those who are responsible for the burning areas to pay attention to these letters," he said. "We will take firm legal action [against companies that ignore our warning]."
Companies that fail to keep fires from their concessions could face administrative sanctions such as permit revocation and criminal punishment of up to 10 years of prison time and 10 billion rupiah (about $630,000) in fines, Rasio said.
"Maximum punishment has to be given so that there's deterrent effect and there's no repeat [burning] so that the public no longer suffers from haze," he said.