Parents who say Indonesia’s haze killed their children testify in citizen suit

Parents who say Indonesia’s haze killed their children testify in citizen suit

04 November 2016

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Indonesia—   The father of a little girl who died during Indonesia’s 2015 fire and haze crisis testified on Thursday as part of a legal challenge to the police’s closing of cases against 15 companies alleged to be complicit in the burning.

The man, Mukhlis, recalled how his daughter had had to be treated with oxygen therapy and then a defibrillator after a mild cough worsened to the point where she was hacking up a yellowish-black liquid. Muhanum Anggriawati passed away in the hospital after a week on a breathing machine, her lungs full of mucus.

Mukhlis said he hoped the 15 cases would be reopened. Another parent whose child had died agreed. “Hopefully this smoke won’t take any more victims,” Erry Wiria told the court.

The aggrieved parents hail from Riau, a province on Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra and an epicenter of the agricultural fires that each year blanket Indonesia and its neigbors in toxic smoke. The fires are a result of slash-and-burn practices by farmers and companies looking to clear land cheaply. An underlying cause is that Indonesia’s vast peat-swamp zones have been widely drained for agriculture; the dried peat is highly flammable.

Last year’s fires were particularly devastating due to an extended dry season brought on by El Niño. They burned an area the size of Vermont, sickened half a milliion people and released more carbon than the entire U.S. economy during the same period.
A picture of Hanum playing the piano hangs on the wall of her family’s house.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has called for an end to the lax law enforcement that has characterized past haze oubreaks. But the news out of Riau in July that the police had quietly released SP3 notices related to 15 firms the environment ministry had listed in connection with the burning prompted outrage nationally. A SP3 is an official police document that confirms a case has been closed.

Mukhlis and Erry Wiria testified as part of a citizen’s lawsuit brought by the people of Riau and an advocacy team of 10 lawyers against the Riau Police and the National Police. They allege that the SP3 notices were illegally issued and demand that the cases be reopened.

In addition, national NGO the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has also filed a legal challenge in Riau, but is currently focusing on just one of the SP3s — that pertaining to PT Sumatera Riang Lestari, a supplier to pulp and paper giant APRIL — rather than all 15. “Based on the evidence, that case has the most complete dossier,” a lawyer for the plaintiffs told local media.
Mukhlis stands outside his home in Riau last year as mourners gather for his daughter.

Lawmakers in Jakarta have also set up a commission to investigate the controversy over the SP3s.

Since the beginning of the year, Riau has had three police chiefs — first Dolly Bambang Hermawan, then Supriyanto and now Zulkarnain Adinegara — at least two of whom have been summoned to testify by the commission. Each one has denied responsibility for issuing the SP3s, which only came to light after NGOs approached the police about the cases.

Doctors who treated Mukhlis’ daughter said they couldn’t be certain whether her death was a result of the toxic smoke. It was the same story with Wiria’s son, Ramadhani Lutfi Aerli. But Wiria said an x-ray had revealed an agglomeration in Ramadhani’s lungs that doctors had described as a “white cloud.” Both parents believe the haze killed their children.

Little is known about the precise health effects of prolonged exposure to the unique blend of chemicals emitted by Indonesia’s burning peatlands, but a recent study by Harvard and Columbia University researchers estimated a mean of more than 100,000 premature deaths resulting from last year’s crisis. The Indonesian government has officially counted 24 deaths and rejects the universities’ findings.

The judge offered her condolences. “We have all become victims,” she said.

Government has urged Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers who are deployed to guard Viphya Plantation against destruction to be vigilant by dealing with the perpetrators accordingly.Msaka (left) walking in the plantantion

Msaka (left) walking in the plantantion

Minister of Mines, Energy and Natural Resources, Bright Msaka, made the statement Tuesday after touring the plantation, especially areas under the jurisdiction of Total Land Care and Raiply Malawi Limited.

Incidences of fire destroying numerous hectares of trees every year have been a never-ending song for the Viphya Plantation for over a decade now. The plantation is shared by two districts of Mzimba andNkhata Bay.

However, the issue has raged on in spite of efforts by government and its stakeholders to plant trees and guard them against destruction. Reports have indicated that more often, the fires that destroy the plantation are deliberately set rather than accidental.

The minister said government is aware that some disgruntled workers and individuals whose licences were cancelled are the ones setting fires in the plantation.

“People need to know that this is a national asset, so if the department of forestry has denied somebody a licence for the reasons best known by the department, they are supposed to understand instead of setting fires,” he said.

To mitigate the challenge, Msaka said government deployed MDF soldiers in protected forests across the country as a way of scaring people from destroying the plantations.

In spite of the effort, some people are still setting parts of the Viphya Forest on fire, regardless of the size of trees.

“We have directed the Malawi Defence Force solders to deal with anyone setting bush fires and operating in the forest without licences and that the law will take its course [against them],” he warned.

However, Msaka commended Raiply Malawi Limited and Total Land Care for utilizing the forest sustainably and adding value to the trees from the forest.

“In the past, we have been cutting trees or sawing and selling them abroad at a very cheap price. We behaved like a prodigal son who squandered all what his father gave him.

“We need to be very careful and be proud of what we inherited so that we can benefit from it and pass on those benefits to the next generation,” advised the minister.

Earlier, Chief Executive Officer of Raiply Malawi Limited, Thomas Oomen, cited bush fires and encroachment as major challenges facing his company.

“This year alone, we have lost about 526 hectares [of trees] to bush fires, unfortunately, most of  these trees are below 15 years old but they are supposed to be harvested at the age of 25. This is dooming our future,” said Oomen.

Chikangawa Forest consists of seven plantations comprising 53,000 hectares.

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