By Donny Muslim
from Pantau Gambut

Four oil palm companies in South Kalimantan are suspected of neglecting to protect their plantations from forest and land fires in 2019. The police finally closed down the four companies to support the investigation. So, how far is the law enforcement process in the hands of the police in 2020?

The forest and land fires that occurred in early September 2019 are still fresh in Abdullah’s memory. Abdullah, 52 years old, is a resident of Limamar Village, Astambul Subdistrict, Banjar District. The smoke covered Limamar Village for about a week with varying thickness. The worst was at the beginning of September, on 2 September 2019 to be exact.

"The smoke was suffocating when it was here for a long time. The visibility was only about 2 meters," Abdullah recalled. Apart from Limamar, he admitted that neighboring villages such as Lokgabang and Kalampayan were also affected because Limamar is located at the center of Astambul Subdistrict.

Based on the police investigation, the smoke covering Limamar Village and its surroundings came from a fire burning the land owned by PT Monrad Intan Barakat (MIB) and Borneo Indo Tani (BIT), which are about 2.5 kilometers from the settlement. Due to strong winds, the fire quickly spread and burned around 1192 hectares of PT MIB's land and 92 hectares of PT BIT's land, causing a thick smog in Limamar Village and its surrounding area.

PT MIB and BIT are two different companies but they are located next to each other. Their lands stretch from Sungai Rangas Ulu Village to Sungai Batang Ilir Village in West Martapura Subdistrict, Banjar District.

The results of Pantau Gambut’s analysis of burned area within the working area of the two concessions show the vast burned area from 2015 – 2019.

Almost every year the two concession areas always experience fires, burning more than 50% of the work area in 2015-2019. Protected and cultivated peatlands within the companies' work area were also burned, including in 2019.

The forest fire incident in the two companies’ areas in 2019 was immediately handled by the Integrated Task Force for Forest Fires Law Enforcement of the South Kalimantan Regional Police. The team immediately put a police line at the location for further investigation. Two forensic experts for forest and land fires, Prof. Bambang Hero Saharjo and Ir. Basuki Wasis, were also there to collect soil samples for laboratory testing.

Representatives from the two companies also commented on the case. Johansyah from PT Monrad Intan Barakat's Public Relations Division said that the fire on their land was triggered by fires coming from outside of their concession. The wind was strong enough so the fire spread and burned their land.

"The fire came from the residents' land and spread to other concession lands. We actually tried to stop it but the strong wind overwhelmed us, so finally the fire spread to our land," said Johansyah during the closed down by the police in 2019.

Meanwhile, the Manager of PT Borneo Indo Tani, Valentine, did not want to accuse anyone in this case. She completely entrusted it to the police for the follow-up investigation.

The Director of the Special Crime Investigation Unit of the South Kalimantan Police, Police Commissioner Masrur, is committed to resolving the case involving these two companies. This is because the management was suspected of being negligent in protecting their oil palm plantations from fire.

Law No. 41 of 1999 on forestry states that "The holder of the right or permit is responsible for the occurrence of forest fire in their work area."

"Hence it caught fire, not deliberately burned. The canals or ditches on the land were dry, so it triggered the fire," said Masrur when we met him in his office on Friday (20/3/2020).

According to Masrur, apart from PT MIB and PT BIT, the police will also follow up on the case involving two other companies. He did not mention the details of those two companies.

However, from the information that we managed to gather, the two corporations are PT Tasnida Agro Lestari (TAL) and PT Agri Bumi Sentosa, which operate in Barito Kuala District. Parts of their work areas are peatlands.

"There are four cases in total. The MIB case is in stage 2 with the prosecutor's office (P-21), while the other three have been investigated and we are just waiting for expert testimony. This part will take some time. The point is that there is no problem with law enforcement. We are committed and we will complete it as soon as possible," added Masrur.

Referring to the data from the Special Crime Investigation Unit of the South Kalimantan Police, so far there are 43 cases of forest and land fires that have been handled and are currently being handled by the police. Four cases involving corporates and the rest involving individuals.

With so many number of cases, he declared that 2019 was the year in which they handle the most cases of forest and land fires in South Kalimantan. He said that this is also due to the instruction from the Crime Investigation Agency of the National Police, who is intensively handling this type of case.

Regarding the legal sanction to be imposed on the companies, the police refer to Law No. 32 of 2009 concerning Environmental Protection and Management, particularly Article 98 and Article 99.

Article 98 paragraph 1 states that any person who intentionally commits an act that results in exceeding the ambient air quality standard, water quality standard, seawater quality standard, or standard criteria for environmental damage shall be punished with imprisonment for a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 10 years and a fine of at least IDR 3,000,000,000 and a maximum of IDR 10,000,000,000.

Meanwhile, Article 99 paragraph 1 states that any person whose negligence results in exceeding the ambient air quality standard, water quality standard, seawater quality standard, or standard criteria for environmental damage shall be punished with imprisonment for a minimum of 1 year and a maximum of 3 years and a fine of at least  IDR 1,000,000,000 and a maximum of IDR 3,000,000,000.

Many cases of forest and land fires have also been highlighted by the South Kalimantan Forum for th Environment (Walhi). Based on the facts that occurred during the 2019 fire incident, they encourage the government to take this problem seriously in the future.

"The government didn’t handle it comprehensively to the root of the problem. They only focus on dealing with the haze after it occurs," said Jefri Raharja, Campaign Manager for Walhi South Kalimantan.

Jefri gave an example, the government spent 30 million rupiahs for every hour of a firefighting helicopter flight to extinguish the fires. However, they didn’t spend as much on prevention efforts before the fire occurred.

Walhi also brought up that cases of upper respiratory infection rose rapidly during the forest and land fire disaster. Referring to data from the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) in 2019, a total of 40,374 people in South Kalimantan suffered from acute respiratory disorders.

Meanwhile, the Executive Secretary of the Indonesian Oil Palm Entrepreneurs Association (GAPKI) South Kalimantan, Ahmad Yuliani, did not comment much on this matter. He only emphasized that it was impossible for companies (especially GAPKI members) to intentionally burn the land.

According to Yuliani, the Presidential Instruction on the Moratorium, Evaluation, and Improvement of Oil Palm Plantation Productivity has also become a serious concern for GAPKI South Kalimantan. The government has postponed the issuance of a new permit for oil palm plantations for three years.

"So it is impossible for new land to be cleared. Especially by burning. What happened was the land accidentally got caught on fire," he said.

Yuliani also keeps encouraging oil palm companies that are not members yet to join their association immediately. This is to foster best practices in managing oil palm plantations in South Kalimantan so that the companies will not damage the environment.

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