Big Fines for Big Polluters

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The South Jakarta District Court has passed a historic verdict in the interest of the environment. The panel of judges favored the environment and forestry ministry in its lawsuit against National Sago Prima, a company charged with negligence over the 2014 burning of forests in Riau. The ruling was a slap in the face for weak law enforcement.

    The victory was the largest case ever involving forest fires, which incurred a total loss valued at Rp1.07 trillion. This comprise Rp753 billion for the cost of restoring environmental destruction and a Rp319 billion fine for ecological and economic damage, which will have to be compensated to the state. The amount of the fine is a record. The previous highest figure was the result of a ruling by the Meulaboh District Court against Kalista Alam in 2013. The oil palm company was ordered to pay Rp366 billion a decision reaffirmed by the Supreme Court last year.

    A ruling by the Bengkalis District Court in Riau on January 22 last year was the basis for the environmental ministry in launching its lawsuit. The court decreed that National Sago Prima was guilty of burning its forested areas. The subsidiary of the Sampoerna Agro group was fined Rp2 billion, less than the Rp5 billion sought by the prosecutor.

    This time, the panel of judges led by Effendi Mukhtar seems to have applied an important principle in the environment law: The polluter pays. This principle obliges every corporation that causes environmental damage to bear the costs of recovery. Another principle that affected the ruling was 'caution', which states that uncertainty over the environmental impact because of limitations of science and technology is no reason to delay preventive measures.

    In legal practice, this principle eventually led to the doctrine of in dubio pro natura, meaning if in doubt about the environmental damage in a pollution case, the judges should side with the environment. This contravenes the legal principle in dubio pro reo, which favors the accused if there is any doubt about the environmental damage.

    One judge did offer a dissenting opinion, stating that the forest fires in Riau had been declared a natural disaster by the regional government, but this argument was found to be weak. It is difficult to see how local government policy can overcome the evidence on the grounds gathered by the environmental ministry's satellite reports revealing numerous hotspots in the area owned by National Sago.

    The National Sago ruling should shame the law enforcers who recently tended to dismiss cases of forest fires. The most recent example was the Riau police arbitrarily halting an investigation into dozens of companies suspected of being responsible for forest fires in July of last year.

    If law enforcers have the courage to apply the principle of in dubio pro natura, it should not be too difficult to round up those corporations accused of negligence or of active involvement in the burning of forests. As such, the government would not have too many problems filing lawsuits against companies charged with breaking the law, if the police were serious about taking them to court.

    The ruling in the Nasional Sago Prima case should be a valuable lesson. Putting the environment first is important, and must be the main consideration when handling cases and passing verdicts. (*)

    Read the full story in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine