A NASA satellite image showing the haze blanketing the region on September 24, 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The Indonesian government said it will appeal against a court’s rejection of a $565 million lawsuit against a plantation company it claims failed to stop forest fires that caused widespread haze in Southeast Asia.
The damages would have been the biggest ever levied against a company, but presiding judge Parlas Nababan dismissed the case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) in a court in South Sumatra.
“The lawsuit against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau is rejected because the evidence is not proven,” he said.
The government says BMH failed to prevent fires in 2014 and earlier this year on about 20,000 hectares of land in South Sumatra province.
BMH is a supplier to Asia Pulp and Paper, one of world’s biggest producers of pulp, paper and packaging.
Rasio Ridho Sani, director of law enforcement at Indonesia’s environment ministry, told the BBC that the government is now looking into its legal options.
Companies must be held responsible for forest fires in the areas they control, even if they do not directly cause them, he said.
Big plantation companies typically deny starting fires in their concessions, insisting the blazes spread after being started outside by people who do not work for them.
Eka Widodo Sugiri, spokesman for the environment ministry, said the government would file an appeal against the court’s decision within two weeks.
“Our nation’s dignity was disturbed, we received complaints from neighbouring countries,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Large swathes of Southeast Asia are covered in haze each year as land on Sumatra and Borneo islands is cleared using slash-and-burn methods.
The 2015 forest fires, which occurred mainly in September and October, caused the worst pollution for years. It made thousands of people ill with respiratory problems and led to schools being closed and flights being cancelled around the region.
BMH is one of 20 firms the government has cracked down on, in an unprecedented move.
The court’s decision set a “bad precedent”, said activist Riko Kurniawan of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.
“We really regret the decision of the judges who rejected the lawsuit, it is another failed attempt to seek justice for victims of the haze,” he said.
The haze cost Indonesia’s economy an estimated $16 billion in 2015, according to the World Bank.