By Yitno Suprapto
from Pantau Gambut

Six Jambi residents were held by the police for allegedly burning land to clear the land for agricultural activities in 2020. They were finally named suspects and may be punished with up to 10 years imprisonment.

Suhaimi, a resident of Parit Jawa, West Tanjung Jabung District, just looked down in silence during his time at the West Tanjung Jabung Police Headquarters in early August. His face was covered with a balaclava when Firman Shantyabudi, Jambi Regional Police Chief, Inspector General Police, named him as a suspect in a land fire case.

The 40-year-old man was deemed responsible for the fire in the 6,000 meters plot of land belonging to Sajali and Dedek in the Pantai Gading Village on 29 July 2020. Suhaimi was charged with Article 108 of Law No. 39 of 2014 in conjunction with Article 56 paragraph (1) concerning Plantations, Article 187 or Article 188 of the Criminal Code which carries a sanction of 10 years imprisonment and a fine of Rp. 10 billion.

The Jambi Regional Police Chief said that Suhaimi's arrest was the first arrest related to forest and land fire in 2020 and it will be an important lesson for other residents about the sanction for land fires. However, in reality, people still burn land.

On the 2nd of August, the West Tanjung Jabung Police also arrested Ahmadi, a 38-year-old farmer suspected of deliberately setting fire to clear a plot of land. Ahmadi was accused of burning 4.2 hectares of land in Sungai Dualap Village, Kuala Betara Sub-District.

Less than a week later, the police made another arrest for a similar case. Sarmauli Saragih was arrested while trying to extinguish a fire in his brother's oil palm plantation in the Sungai Ari Preparation Village, Batang Asam Sub-District. From the investigation result, officers found one hectare of land which was suspected to have been deliberately burned for agricultural purposes.

When contacted via telephone, Adjunct Senior Police Commissioner Guntur Saputro, West Tanjung Jabung Regional Police Chief, said that most of the suspects were farmers and agricultural workers. "They burn the land because it’s practical," he said.

In August, the Criminal Investigation Unit from the Muaro Jambi Regional Police also arrested three residents who were suspected of starting a land fire. The three residents were HK, NZ, and Teguh Turasno. They were arrested for land fires cases committed in different locations. Teguh was named a suspect in a land fire case in Kasang Pudak Village, Kumpeh Ulu Sub-District.

During a press conference at the Muaro Jambi Regional Police Headquarters, Teguh admitted to clearing the land to cultivate long beans and corn. Due to not owning land, he used to plant crops on other people's land.

The 40-year-old man knows that land burning is prohibited. Teguh has participated in the information dissemination carried out by the village officials and the police concerning the prohibition of land clearing by burning. For farmers with limited capital, land burning seems like the quickest and easiest way. "Because we only require a small (area of ​​land), we have the courage to burn it," he said.

Burnt Company Concession Area

At noon on 11 August 2020, a fire raged on a peatland belonging to PT Kharisma in Kemingking Dalam Village, Taman Rajo Sub-District, Muaro Jambi District. The firefighter’s effort to extinguish continued till night. Water bombing helicopters were also deployed to extinguish the fire. The burnt area is estimated to reach 10 hectares.

The Muaro Jambi Police have not been able to find any witnesses. Adjunct Senior Police Commissioner Ardiyanto, Muaro Jambi Regional Police Chief, said that they are still continuing the investigation and are looking for further information.

Ardiyanto said that the police have been unable to name any suspects because they did not have two sufficient pieces of evidence. They were also unable to confirm whether PT Kharisma intentionally started the fire. However, he admitted that they would continue to work professionally in an effort to uncover the forest and land fires cases. 

The land fires in PT. Mega Anugrah Sawit (PT.MAS) in Sipin Teluk Duren Village, Muaro Jambi and PT. Sawit Sari Persada Village (PT.DSSP) in Jati Mulyo Village, East Tanjung Jabung concession areas have not improved  in 2019. In fact, the Jambi Regional Police named the two companies as suspects for the forest fires in October 2019.

"We are still conducting the investigation," said the Senior Police Commissioner Kuswahyudi, Head of Public Relations of Jambi Police. He declined to comment on the slow investigation process.

Feri Irawan, Coordinator of Simpul Jaringan Pantau Gambut Jambi believes that the law enforcement effort in the forest and land fires case in Jambi was unfair. In his opinion, police officers should also be able to quickly process companies whose concession areas are burned.

"Actually, it's the same as the farmers, it's clear that once the company has been issued a permit, they have to be responsible for the concession area, if the area is burned or flooded, they are the ones who are responsible," he said.

In his opinion, law enforcement officers should also have other considerations when arresting farmers who cleared land, such as the merun culture— the local wisdom method of clearing land by burning. The PPLH Law allows the farmers to clear two hectares of land.

"The law enforcement assertiveness must be balanced. Don’t take too long in processing the companies’ investigation, while farmers who only use a small plot of land to plant vegetables using the traditional method are immediately arrested."

Amidst economic difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Feri is worried that the arrest of these farmers, who clear land to plant food for their own needs, might lead to new problems.

“The authorities must be assertive, but they should also take a lot of considerations. The fires that occur are also a result of the company's activities. The peatlands have dried up due to the canals built by the company, which has affected the surrounding areas and made them dry and prone to fires,” he said.

In his opinion, the government and law enforcement officers must also be familiar with the peat characteristics to handle forest and land fires cases. "The haze from the fires is not the only important factor, but the cause and effect must also be considered. Then the suspect could be named."

Feri stated that the success of handling forest and land fires cases is not measured by how many land fire perpetrators were caught, but by successfully preventing future fires. He is worried that the law enforcement gap will create a negative impression on the government, which seems to be protecting the companies.

The fires in Jambi are also caused by the peatlands being damaged and converted into plantations. The canals built by the company to drain the peatlands also caused the surrounding areas to dry up.

“In the past, people who carried out the Merun method would not cause fires because the peat was still wet. Now, the peat has been damaged, so it easily burns,” said Feri.

He encouraged the government to wet all of the peat areas, hence it won’t easily burn, especially during the dry season. From January to 22 August 2020, the Jambi Province BPBD only documented 247 hectares of burnt land and forest areas. Bachyuni ​​Deliansyah, Head of the Jambi Provincial Disaster Management Agency, said that this year’s low number of forest and land fires was because the government is more prepared. In addition, the government also benefited from the wet-dry season this year.

PT ATGA’s case

The 2015 forest and land fires case that dragged PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA) is still processed in court. The oil palm plantation company filed an appeal to the Supreme Court because it refused to accept the Jambi High Court's decision on 6 August 2020, which upheld the Jambi District Court's decision.

On 13 April 2020, Viktor Togi Rumahorbo, Jambi District Court Judge, granted the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) lawsuit. The court decision ordered PT ATGA to pay material compensation of Rp 160,180,335,500 and to pay the environmental restoration costs of Rp 430,362,687,500 for the 1,500 hectares fire that broke out in its concession area. The decision was based on the strict liability principle.

Frandy Septior Nababan, PT ATGA's legal advisor, said that PT. ATGA had never been subject to administrative sanction and should not be held responsible for the 2015 land fires in the PT. ATGA concession area located in Kadis Dendang Village, East Tanjung Jabung.

"The field manager was convicted, but he was not sentenced, which means that the company is in the clear based on the criminal code and from an administrative side," said Frandy when contacted via telephone. He mentioned that he would file an appeal to the Supreme Court in early September.

Agusrizal, Head of the Jambi Province Plantation Office, said that all companies involved in the 2015 and 2019 fires were prohibited from carrying out activities in the burned concession areas.

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