It started with a mild cough. Ruhugan was just 12 years old when the cough began, transforming within weeks into a violent hacking that brought up a yellowish-black liquid.
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.
Ruhugan 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.
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.
To be fair, the governments concerned have taken some measures to increase legal accountability. The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 in Singapore creates both civil and criminal offences “for any entity to engage in conduct, or to condone conduct, causing or contributing to haze pollution in Singapore”.
Communities and NGOs are also engaged in various efforts to promote increased accountability. Greenpeace has set up an interactive map showing company concessions and active fires to create more transparency on land tenure. Forest & Finance provides public data showing the role of finance in deforestation and aims to encourage the financial sector to adopt policies to prevent funding of this practice. NGOs are helping empower communities to document their experiences related to haze, including through the use of technology.
Groups are advocating for better laws in their respective jurisdictions. Communities and government officials are also working together to bring more lawsuits, and have been successful in a number of the cases that have already been brought. For example, the Indonesian supreme court in 2015 ordered palm oil company PT Kallista Alam to pay a record amount of $26m (£21m) in fines and reparations for its cut-and-burn practices in the Tripa peat swamp region.
But these efforts must be accompanied by heightened measures to remove barriers to legal accountability and ensure that in cases of abuse, communities are able turn to courts as powerful and effective instruments for remedy and justice. In all the countries concerned, there should be collective action to increase the capacity of courts to handle environmental cases address corruption in law enforcement and judicial systems require greater transparency among companies; promote access to information; and ensure the personal security of investigators and seekers of justice.