Indonesian fire expert awarded for exposing destruction by plantation firms

13 November 2019

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INDONESIA – Indonesian forensics expert Bambang Hero Saharjo has been awarded a top environmental prize for his work in delivering justice against oil palm plantations accused of allowing fires on their concessions.

Bambang was one of 206 nominees from 38 countries for the John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, now in its eighth year. The announcement of the award, a joint initiative by the charity Sense about Science and the scientific journal Nature, was made at a ceremony in London on Nov. 12.

The judges called Bambang, from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), “the foremost expert on illegal and destructive forest and land fires in Indonesia.”

“Bambang’s expertise allows him to trace the route and source of fires and he has testified in 500 court cases investigating fires,” Sense about Science said in a statement. “He continues to testify and stand up for the Indonesian people’s constitutional right to a healthy environment, one of the very few scientists in his field who are prepared to do so.”

It also cited the frequent attempts by companies Bambang has testified against to silence him, primarily through litigation known as SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, none of which have held up in court.

Bambang Hero Saharjo, an Indonesian fire expert, speaks during a ceremony in London where he accepted the 2019 John Maddox Prize. Image courtesy of Bambang Hero Saharjo.

Bambang said the “prize will give me more power” to push back against these companies and expose their actions.

“I almost couldn’t believe that I’m receiving this award in London because it feels like a dream to me,” Bambang told Mongabay. “Praise be to God, the panel of judges saw my consistency in using scientific evidence for nearly 20 years, which shows the huge role that science plays in uncovering [forest fires].”

He said receiving the award was even more surprising to him because only last year he was sued by an oil palm company, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa (JJP), for 510 billion rupiah ($36.3 million) after he testified against its practices in court. Bambang’s testimony led to the oil palm firm being ordered by a court to pay 491 billion rupiah ($34.8 million) in fines and restoration fees for fires that occurred on its concession.

The company subsequently filed a lawsuit against Bambang, but not over the substance of his testimony. Rather, it was a quibble over a technicality: the company said Bambang’s evidence was inadmissible because it used the letterheads of both his university and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (which had commissioned Bambang to carry out a forensic investigation of the fire). The lawsuit was later dismissed.

At the time, Bambang, who has weathered a flurry of similar lawsuits throughout his career, said he “won’t back off, not even one step, because there are already many cases waiting for me.”

It was this determination to get to the bottom of each case in the face of constant threats that won over the judges of the John Maddox Prize.

“Bambang Hero Saharjo stood out to the judges for his decision to dedicate his life to the difficult task of communicating sound science and evidence in many forums, ensuring that communities have access to and understand this evidence and they can use it to safeguard their health and their environment,” said Tracey Brown, the director of Sense about Science and one of the judges.

Fellow judge Martin Rees, a British cosmologist and astrophysicist from the University of Cambridge, called Bambang’s work pivotal to protecting Indonesia’s rainforests.

“Rain forests are under threat, but their preservation matters to all of us who care about climate and biodiversity,” he said. “So it’s right that we should acclaim a man who seized the chance to really make a difference — by persistent and effective campaigning against powerful interests.”

The judges awarded a further prize, for exceptional communication of evidence by someone early in their career, to Olivier Bernard, a Canadian pharmacist who stood up against alternative-health proponents pushing for high-dose vitamin C injections for cancer patients — a treatment with no basis in evidence.

“Olivier spoke out repeatedly, describing the scientific evidence and speaking directly to politicians and affected groups,” Sense about Science said in its statement. “He endured a campaign of harassment, including complaints to his employer and professional body, revealing the address of the pharmacy where he works, a smear campaign, calls for a boycott of his wife’s books, as well as death threats to him and his family.”

Bambang Hero Saharjo, second from right, and Oliver Bernard, second from left, pose together after accepting the 2019 John Maddox Prize in London. Image courtesy of Bambang Hero Saharjo.

Brown said both both Bambang and Oliver exemplified the spirit of the Maddox Prize as they stood up for the rights of fellow citizens.

“They saw the easier path of silence or complicity and rejected it to take responsibility for communicating evidence,” she said. “Our winners are an example of what can be achieved by one person, standing up against misinformation and corruption.”

Banner image: Bambang Hero Saharjo, a forestry expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), speaks during a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. 


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