Indonesia — Smoke rising from several spots scattered throughout more than 61,000 hectares of carbon-rich Tripa peat swamp forests in Nagan Raya regency, Aceh, could be easily seen from a Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft flying low above the area on Thursday last week.
Onboard the airplane were a number of top officials from agencies tasked with investigating a case involving palm oil company PT Kallista Alam, which was alleged to be responsible for the fires that have threatened the ecosystem of about 200 orangutans living in the area.
The case also caught the attention of the global community and has tainted the reputation of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has only recently returned from the Rio +20 Summit where he touted his green initiatives, which include programs like a moratorium on deforestation.
A petition signed by concerned individuals from around the world, questioning the Indonesian governments ability to halt the environmental destruction at Tripa, have prompted the authorities to take action.
The police, the Environment Ministry and the Forestry Ministry are all on the case, with the Presidential Working Unit for the Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4) pushing for action.
The UKP4s visit to the site was part of a move to examine the situation on the ground and collect evidence against the palm oil company.
Technicalities in the law, however, have hamstrung the investigation.
Aerial photographs of the Tripa peat swamp, for example, cannot be used as evidence by the investigation team.
Based on the Information and Transaction Law, photographs can be only be used as evidence if they are backed up by an official report from the investigation and direct [confirmation and] testimonies from employees from the company who joined the trip, the Environment Ministrys investigation division head, Shaifuddin Akbar, said at the Cut Nyak Dien airport in Nagan Raya last week after wrapping up the aerial inspection. PT Kallista Alams employees were unavailable to take part in the task forces investigative fly-over.
Akbar added that the team also had conducted a ground check to complete their investigative report.
Environment Ministrys head investigator Sudariyono said that his team found strong indications that PT Kallista Alam, had deliberately burned the peat swamp to convert the area to an oil palm plantation.
First, an aerial view showed a pattern to the burning of the forest, a strong indication that it was planned. Second, we could see that the company had done nothing to put out the fire, let alone implement preventive measures against fire. We found no personnel or fire fighting equipment stationed in the area.
Sudariyono said that all offenses were found in peatland protected by a governmental regulation.
Our ground check found that Rawa Tripa was a peatland with a depth of three meters or more, meaning that it is protected under a 1990 presidential decree, Sudariyono said.
He said that the investigation team was expected to file a criminal and civil suit against PT Kallista Alam and seek damages for causing environmental destruction in the area.
National Police director for special crimes Brig. Gen. Gatot Subiyaktoro said that preliminary findings indicated that the company had violated Law No. 18/2004 on plantations by conducting illegal land clearing, burning land and planting oil palms without permits.
He added that the police also found irregularities in the issuance of the plantations permit.
Then Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf granted the permit to the company on Aug. 25, 2011, contradicting Presidential Instruction No. 10/2011 on the moratorium for new permits in primary forests and peatland conversion.
Gatot said that Irwandi, who recently lost the local election in April to Zaini Abdullah, likely broke the law by overstepping his legal authority, as the issuance of such permit only needed approval from a regent.
To pursue our investigation, we will question experts on plantation and state administration soon, Gatot said.
The UKP4 has recommended PT Kallista Alams permit be revoked.
Representatives from several NGOs, including the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the Aceh Legal Aid Institute, the Leuser Ecosystem Management Body (BPKEL) and Wetlands International, have demanded the government shut down water canals in the area that were used by the company for irrigation to prevent further degradation of the peatland.
The Tripa peat swamp was included in the Forestry Ministrys latest Indicative Moratorium Map of 65,282,006 hectares of natural forests and peatland that are considered off-limits for commercial activities.
The map serves as a guideline for local administrations when issuing licenses for forest clearance for commercial purposes.