Court stands with environmentalists

Cause for concern: Indonesia has been losing its forests to plantation companies for years, with a large chunk of rainforests converted into plantations of all kinds. — AFP

Jakarta: The country has been losing its forests to plantation companies for years, with a large chunk of Indonesian rainforests across the archipelago converted into plantations of all kinds.

Environmentalists have been lambasting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on the issue, especially for issuing a government regulation in 2015 that allowed existing plantations to continue operating in designated conservation areas and protected forests. Activists claimed that the regulation would exacerbate the problem, which prompted them to challenge it in court.

The Supreme Court has decided to stand with the environmentalists on the issue.

Its justices ruled in favour of the activists in early December, and ordered the government to annul an article in the regulation that allows plantation companies to continue operating in protected conservation areas and forests.

Presided by chief justice Irfan Fachruddin, the Supreme Court judicial panel issued the ruling in favour of Walhi on Dec 13 and announced on its website that it had ruled in favour of the petition for judicial review filed by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) against Government Regulation No. 104/2015 on forest area conversion.

The environmental organisation challenged point (2) of Article 51 in the regulation, which allows plantation owners to continue cultivating land in protected forests or conservation areas for one planting cycle.

Walhi argued that the provision would destroy the habitats of many endemic flora and fauna and increase the risk of future disasters due to forest loss. The group added that the article would also harm the local people and benefit investors, especially those investing in oil palm plantations.

However, the court has yet to issue an official copy of the ruling to the public, nor has it sent a copy of the ruling to either the plaintiff or the defendant.

“The court has declared the article not legally binding and that it should be annulled. This means that permits for plantations located within conservation areas or protected forests must be revoked,” Boy Even Sembiring of Walhi said on Sunday.

Boy added that law enforcement could move to close those plantations operating in forest areas, even take legal action against the owners, once the government revoked the article.

The 2015 regulation was an extension of a similar 2010 regulation issued by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Despite the ruling, Boy said that annulling the government regulation would depend on the president and the government’s will.

“The president is currently focusing on investments. I think further revision and prosecution regarding plantations in forest areas might see delays in implementation,” he added.

Environment and Forestry Ministry spokesperson Djati Witjaksono Hadi said the ministry had not yet received a copy of the Supreme Court ruling.

“We are unable to decide what to do next until we receive an official copy of the ruling,” he stressed.

Jokowi imposed a moratorium in 2018 on the issuance of new permits for oil palm plantations, in response to international criticisms that the rapid expansion of plantations since the 1990s had contributed to widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss in the archipelago.

Despite the moratorium, oil palm plantations still contribute to ongoing deforestation in Indonesia.

Citing environment ministry data, civil society group AURIGA Nusantara said that 5.9 million hectares of forest areas were cleared for new oil palm plantations in July 2019, increasing from 5.4 million hectares recorded in 2018.

That same month, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in favour of the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit that sought to lay the blame for the 2015 forest fires in Central Kalimantan on Jokowi, his Cabinet and regional administrations.

The court also ordered the government to build a lung hospital to provide free treatment for the 2015 haze victims, among other measures.

However, the government said it would appeal the decision in an effort to assert that it had taken measures to prevent the fires from spreading further. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

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