Indonesia President Joko Widodo promised strong government action after wildfires ravaged 6.1 million acres in 2015Indonesia President Joko Widodo promised strong government action after the massive 2015 wildfires, but activists charge the government has not followed through. Photo credit: Romeo Gacad/Getty Images

By Nithin Coca

More than $1 billion in fines have not been paid by 11 Indonesian palm oil and paper pulp companies found guilty for their failure to prevent burning on their land during the historic 2015 Indonesian forest fires, according to Greenpeace Indonesia.

The activist group is calling attention to the unpaid fines to pressure the government and the companies, which were found guilty of improper land management in lawsuits filed by the Indonesian government. The verdict found that the companies’ practices contributed to the massive fires, which charred more than 6.1 million acres. The companies, which include Kallista Alam, PT Surya Panen Subur, Jatim Jaya Perkasa and Bumi Mekar Hijau, released the equivalent of an estimated 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, believed to be the largest human-caused climate event in decades.

“The government must be sure to enforce the law, and ensure that the legal institutions, like the courts, push the companies to pay the fine,” said Asep Komarudin, a campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia.

The nation experienced an extreme El Nino event in 2015 that brought abnormally dry conditions. This, along with years of mismanagement of forests and carbon-rich peatlands, resulted in the unprecedented fires.

“That year at the peak, the daily fire emissions coming from Indonesia exceeded the daily emission produced from the entire U.S.,” said Hanny Chrysolite, a forest and climate program officer with the World Resources Institute (WRI) – Indonesia. “The fires also affected other sectors of Indonesia like the economy and also health.”

Climate and environmental advocates say the government’s failure to hold companies responsible for the fires could lead to increased burning, as the benefits of using fire to clear land outweigh the costs of fines or regulations.

Even if collected, the fine is little deterrent for the industries. The court-imposed fine —- which totals $1.3 billion (19 trillion Indonesian Rupiah)— is only a small percentage of exports for both the palm oil and paper industry, which total more than $22 billion per year.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI), which includes as members several of the companies fined, did not respond to a request for comment.

The lack of follow-through on collecting the fines contradicts promises President Joko Widodo made after the fires to pursue strict action. Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, then-coordinating minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, said the government would blacklist companies and owners responsible for the fires. Government officials have not commented on the specifics of the uncollected fines, only saying that the lawsuits are being fully enforced. Greenpeace said it would like to see more forceful action by the government. If the companies refuse to pay the fines, there are other possible legal avenues.

“The government has the power to confiscate property, or revoke the permit,” said Asep. “But we see there is nothing happening. It seems like the government is not following up the verdict to get the fines.”

According to Greenpeace Indonesia, court documents specifically mention greenhouse gas emissions as one of the factors in determining the size of the fines. This connects to Indonesia’s larger problem of deforestation, which has devastated its landscape and contributed to global climate change.

While the 2015 event was historic, fires are a regular occurrence in Indonesia. They are directly connected to deforestation for commodities including palm oil and timber. In fact, fires do not occur naturally in the tropical regions of Indonesia, but are intentionally set to clear land to turn into plantations. That has turned Indonesia into the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to WRI Indonesia.

Compounding the problem of deforestation, the landscape is further degraded by the draining of naturally wet peatlands, which hold immense carbon stock, to grow oil palm, acacia, or eucalyptus – all non-native species. It also contributes to land drying, which results in emissions from degraded peat and, in dry seasons, fires.

“When you look at the factors that contributed to the fires, such as the mismanagement of peatland, the things that the companies were doing causes CO2 emissions of an invisible kind as the peat begins to break down,” said Igor O’Neill, on Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest team.

Globally, land-use emissions make up about a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions, of which Indonesia is the largest source. Indonesia’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement calls for a 29-41 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to “business as usual” scenario, with land-use reductions the key to reaching this goal.

“Land use emissions is still the biggest contributor to the total national emissions,” said Arief Wijaya, WRI Indonesia’s senior manager for climate and forests.

Groups are also calling for better enforcement to keep future events from devastating the country.WRI Indonesia believes that the state has taken significant action, including the creation of new entities such as the Peatland Restoration Agency, and points to the lower rate of deforestation seen in 2017 as evidence that it might be working.

Greenpeace and others are more skeptical. Besides the unpaid fines, another area of concern is the lack of transparency on what companies face when they are issued administrative sanctions. So far, 171 companies have been sanctioned according to the government, but there is little information on what the sanctions entail, and why only 11 companies were eventually sued.

“What is the standard when choosing which company goes to court, and which ones get sanctions?” said Arie Rompas, team leader with Greenpeace’s Indonesia forests campaign. Greenpeace has found evidence of burning in both fined and sanctioned company lands, and still does not have a clear understanding of sanctions are monitored or enforced.  

There could soon be a chance to see if the government’s actions have had any impact. Scientists have said this year will likely also bring an El Nino, meaning that dry conditions are possible across much of Indonesia later this year.

“This year is very important in looking at how the effort of government, and how the company that were already identified in our investigation, if they are still doing fires or not,” said Arie.

If the government’s actions have been sufficient, fires and emissions should be less. But if not, the world could be in line for another massive climate catastrophe.

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