Suharto approves Bill to crack down on polluters

THE BIG HAZE

Companies burning forests will no longer get away with it.

PRESIDENT Suharto has approved a new environmental law that empowers the government to crack down on those who start forest and land fires in the country.

Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja said that Mr Suharto signed the Bill, which was passed in Parliament last month, on Friday in the hope that it would speed up efforts to tackle the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan that are contributing to the worsening haze conditions.

“The enactment of the law has given the government immediate power to charge those responsible for polluting the environment,” he said.

He stressed that there was “no way” companies guilty of burning forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan could get away with their “unlawful deeds”.

The new law, he said, imposed stiffer penalties on polluters, with a maximum of 15 years’ jail and a 250-million-rupiah (S$130,000) fine.

Previous laws allowed for a maximum 10 years’ jail and a 100-million-rupiah fine.

It allows the government, among other things, to seize the assets or close down activities of those convicted of damaging the environment.

Mr Sarwono said that it would strengthen the government’s hand to crack the whip on errant firms that continued to violate a ban imposed by the President earlier this month on land clearing by fire.

The authorities have threatened to revoke the licences of 175 suspected companies if they failed to show that they had not engaged in clearing land by burning.

They have been given until the end of the month to prove their innocence.

In response to calls from the media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for tougher action, Attorney-General Singgih said that he had ordered the courts to co-operate with police to slap a criminal or civil suit against these firms.

He did not discount the possibility of using the anti-subversion law.

One striking feature of the new law is that it allows environmental organisations to file a “class-action lawsuit” against companies suspected of causing environmental damage.

Environmental cases could be brought to court or resolved in out-of-court settlements.

Observers here said that it would strengthen the claims of NGOs like the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi) to take independent legal action against the suspected firms. Walhi has been pressing the police to launch criminal investigations into the actions of the suspected firms. The group cited the country’s environmental law and a criminal code article as a basis for launching investigations.

It would give police two weeks before it filed a complaint.

Fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forest so far but some non-governmental organisations here believe that the damage is much more extensive.

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