Kepulauan Riau — A leading non-governmental organization is set to file a class action lawsuit against 10 companies in connection with the August forest fires on the Indonesian island of Kepulauan Riau that produced a choking haze which spread across thousands of square miles to neighbouring countries including Malaysia and Thailand, creating serious health and environmental problems. “We will sue the companies because they use slash-and-burn techniques to clear land on their concession areas every year,” said Chalid Muhammad, the chairman of the Indonesia Environment Forum (Walhi).
Claiming to represent people who suffered from the forest fires, Walhi is expected to file the lawsuit with the Pekanbaru District Court in Sumatra on Tuesday. The haze is produced by smoke from forests being burned down illegally as a cheap way of clearing land for agricultural use, allegedly by agro-industrial companies – notably palm oil and soya producers – many of whom are from Malaysia and Singapore. The haze problem has existed since the 1990s and has cost many millions of dollars of economic damage to countries in the region, aside from the unquantifiable damage to human wellbeing.
Walhi also reported the companies to the Indonesia’s national police headquarters, the attorney general’s office, the ministry of forestry and the state minister for the environment on Monday.
The government has promised to prosecute 10 plantation companies, including eight from Malaysia, accused of deliberately setting fires to clear forests to open up forests for oil palm plantations on Sumatra island. The Indonesian environment ministry is currently investigating the companies, whose names have been withheld.
The companies are facing air pollution charges. In the second week in August, a state of emergency was declared in the western Malaysian towns of Kuala Selangor and Port Klang – the country’s busiest port – which was shut down after Malaysia’s environment ministry found the air pollution index had risen to 529. A reading of 500 and more is considered by the authorities to be an emergency.
According to Indonesia’s forestry ministry, the eight Malaysian companies control concessions of more than 200,000 hectares of land in Sumatra.
The government has outlawed land clearance by burning, but has usually failed to prosecute or imprison plantation owners and logging firms accused of violating the law.
Officials have repeatedly vowed to bring them to court but no action has been taken. Collusion between big companies and corrupt local politicians is the root of the problem, observers say.
Environmentalists said the real test would come when the companies were brought before a court of law.