Tropical forest and peatland areas bigger than the Netherlands have burned in Indonesia in the past five years, Greenpeace has said, lambasting President Joko Widodo’s government for allowing the pulpwood and palm oil sector to act with impunity despite bearing “considerable responsibility” for the fire crisis. Indonesia, which has the biggest forests outside the Amazon and the Congo, is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and each year fires are linked to slash-and-burn practices used to clear areas for palm oil cultivation.
In a new report on Thursday, the prominent environmental group said some 4.4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) of land have burned in Indonesia between 2015 and 2019. Despite government promises to punish companies found to be deliberately burning concessions – particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis that caused trans-boundary haze, affecting tens of millions of people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – “palm oil and pulp firms continue to operate with few or no sanctions”, Greenpeace said. There has been no action against eight of the 10 palm oil companies with the largest burned areas in their concessions from 2015 to 2019, despite fires burning in multiple years within their concessions, it added.
Indonesia’s government and legislators recently passed a new law that dismantles environmental protections, Greenpeace said. The “omnibus” Job Creation law, drafted with the involvement of the plantation sector approved by parliament earlier this month, weakens liability for environmental crimes, the group said, as the “palm oil and pulp sectors will be relieved of responsibility for prior damage they have inflicted on Indonesia’s peatlands”. The law will also protect the plantation sector from future liability for damage to the environment and fires in their concessions, the report said.
“Palm oil and pulp multinationals have practically set the rules in recent decades. Year after year they have broken the law by allowing forests to go up in flames, yet they evade justice and go unpunished,” said Kiki Taufik, global head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia Forest campaign. “Measures like the pro-business ‘Omnibus Law’ that ignore people and see nature as a bottomless resource to be extracted for short-term profit, can only have a catastrophic outcome for human health, human rights and the climate,” he added.
Three of the five companies, Greenpeace said, had the largest burned areas in their concessions from 2015 to 2019 are suppliers to Indonesia’s biggest conglomerate, Sinar Mas Group, and one of the country’s largest pulp and paper companies, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).