Meet Indonesia’s go-to expert witness against haze-causing plantation firms

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  • Bambang Hero Sahajaro is the Indonesian government’s chief expert witness against plantation firms accused of causing wildfires.
  • Last year, Bambang was sued by a company whose practices he testified against in court. The lawsuit against him was eventually thrown out, though observers say it is part of a trend of companies fighting back against their prosecution by trying to silence environmental defenders.
  • “I won’t back off, not even one step, because there are already many cases waiting for me,” he told Mongabay. “I will keep fighting for the people’s constitutional right to a healthy environment.

Helping the Indonesian government prosecute companies accused of environmental crimes is a risky job.

Last year, Bambang Hero Saharjo, the Indonesian environment ministry’s chief expert witness against plantation companies accused of setting fires or allowing them to spread, was sued by a palm oil firm, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, for millions of dollars after he testified against its practices in court.

An expert in fire forensics from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), Bambang was the second environmental expert to be hit with such a lawsuit. His IPB colleague, Basuki Wasis, was sued by a mining company that was also convicted of illegally damaging the environment. The lawsuits against both men were eventually thrown out, though some observers say they are part of a larger trend of companies fighting back against their prosecution by trying to silence environmental defenders.

But if the case was a sign of the dangers in his profession, Bambang wasn’t worried.

“I won’t back off, not even one step, because there are already many cases waiting for me,” he told Mongabay. “I will keep fighting for the people’s constitutional right to a healthy environment. We can’t afford to be afraid in the face of lawsuit threats like those from JJP.”

In the past two decades, Bambang has handled hundreds of cases for the Indonesian government, which is trying to clamp down on the annual wildfires that burn across the country’s desiccated peatlands.

These vast peat swamp zones have been widely drained and dried by palm oil and paper firms, rendering them highly combustible. Meanwhile, companies, farmers and land speculators have a habit of using fire to clear land. The practice is generally illegal in Indonesia, though it is also the cheapest method.

Indonesia is one of the world’s top carbon polluters, mostly due to emissions from rainforest and peatland clearance in addition to the annual fires. The burning in 2015 was especially destructive, razing an area the size of Vermont, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere during a four-month period than the entire EU, and sickening hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and neighboring countries.

“The law says every citizen has the right to a good environment,” Bambang says. “With the recent fires, especially in 2015, a lot of people died from the smoke. There was a case in Riau of a father whose child died in his arms. An examination later showed the child died from a lack of oxygen. So we need to fight for this right.”

Watch our short film about Bambang Hero Saharjo to learn more about how he investigates companies in the field, his experience dealing with the lawsuit against him, and why he chooses to work for the government instead of the more lucrative work of testifying on behalf of the companies themselves.

Banner: Bambang at a press conference in Jakarta. Image courtesy of the Indonesian environment ministry.

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Article published by Philip Jacobson

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment



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