100,000 may have died but there is still no justice over Indonesian air pollution

It started with a mild cough. Muhanum Anggriawati was just 12 years old when the cough began, transforming within weeks into a violent hacking that brought up a yellowish-black liquid, quoted from The Guardian.

Indonesian military personnel spray water on a burned forest area at Rimbo Panjang Village, Kampar, Riau, Indonesia on Aug. 6. 2015. Photo by Yenni Safana/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At the end of last year, her father told an Indonesian court how she had been taken into hospital, and treated with oxygen therapy, then with a defibrillator. Nothing, however, had worked. After a week on a breathing machine, she died in the hospital, her lungs still full of the foul mucus.

Anggriawati is believed to have been one of many victims of the haze, or air pollution, that regularly spreads across Indonesia because of the huge deforestation fires linked to palm oil and other agribusiness.

The Global Fire Emissions Database reports that in 2015, fires in Indonesia generated about 600m tonnes of greenhouse gases, which is roughly equivalent to Germany’s entire annual output.

The smoke contains dangerous chemicals such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and cyanide. A study by Harvard and Columbia universities revealed that the haze may have caused the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people in south-east Asia in 2015. The authors estimated that there were 91,000 deaths in Indonesia; 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore.

Anggriawati’s father is one of a number of grieving parents in Riau who have taken the brave step of bringing a lawsuit against the police for terminating investigations against 15 companies linked to haze-causing burning activities in 2015. His suit is just one of many uphill legal struggles to seek accountability. But relief is limited. The governments of these countries have rejected the results of the study, citing inaccurate data. Indonesia reports just 24 deaths.

We visited Indonesia late last year. Lawyers and advocates bringing cases on behalf of the families and communities told us about the difficulty they face in meeting strict evidentiary requirements to establish where the burning is occurring, who is responsible, and the causal link between the burning and health problems in affected communities.

In one case, satellite images were not accepted as evidence. Judges and even witnesses may hesitate to impute causality or link the health impacts to the haze, even when there is scientific basis to support it. Lawyers and advocates also intimated that the lack of access to evidence, especially company information including maps that show plantation boundaries, makes it difficult to build a case even when the evidence of burning is present.

Even more worrying are the threats to people, including government agents, who are trying to investigate and document the fires. In September 2016, Indonesia’s environment ministry reported that a team of environmental investigators were taken hostage by up to 100 men, believed to have been hired by a palm oil firm.

These violent threats greatly diminish victims’ interest in documentation and litigation, as well as their hope for effective and peaceful legal redress. Placed against a backdrop of corruption in judicial and law enforcement systems, all these factors make potential litigation unappealing and burdensome for victims.

Legal accountability and access to justice are vital to this fight. While strong executive acts and voluntary company measures such as certification and zero-burning policies are helpful, it is even more important that those responsible are held to account.

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This article was originally published on theguardian.com / Author: Elodie Aba and Bobbie Sta. Maria

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