Asia

Death threats, intimidation not a deterrence to scientist’s mission to save Indonesia forests

JAKARTA: Professor Bambang Hero Saharjo had just arrived at a court to testify as an expert witness in an environmental crime case when he received a phone call.

The unknown caller tried to intimidate him and Prof Saharjo immediately ended the call. He then switched off his phone.

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This was just one of the many incidents where the 55-year-old Indonesian scientist received intimidation and even death threats for testifying in environmental cases, particularly those related to forest and land fire, forest encroachment and illegal logging.

“Because in environmental cases, the key is in the expert witness,” he told CNA.

Indonesia is no stranger to forest and land fires which authorities blame on culprits who purposely set fires to clear land. Most of the time, these fires are worsened by dry weather.

A firefighter tries to extinguish a bush fire in Ogan Ilir regency, South Sumatra, Indonesia Aug 4, 2017. (Photo: Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/via REUTERS)

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The massive fires, which happen almost every year, have caused deaths and economic loss, while setting back efforts to combat climate change.

A key element to stop the fires is tough law enforcement but since it is not easy to prove who the culprits are, an expert witness plays a critical role when a defendant is tried in court.

As a forest protection lecturer at IPB University, an agricultural university in Bogor, Prof Saharjo holds fast to his belief that his profession requires him to teach and conduct research as well as to serve the public.

It is the latter that has led him to become an expert witness by using scientific evidence in about 600 court cases, but the job does not come without consequences.

He sometimes receives messages from random people and has strangers looking for him at his university.

There were also a few times when his family had to seek refuge because someone threatened their safety.

He declined to go into more detail about the threats that he had faced.

READ: Head of Indonesian peatland agency says he is 'very optimistic' there will be no forest fires this year

In 2018, a palm oil company even tried to sue him after it was being convicted of causing fires.

“They sued me for 510 billion rupiah (US$35 million) and asked me to withdraw all my testimonies hoping that when they are withdrawn, there will be no more charges against them.

“But eventually in the second trial, the corporation withdrew the lawsuit,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, Prof Saharjo soldiered on and has flown to various parts of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi to testify for the last 20 years.

“I apply science for the interest of the public. I go to the field, conduct training and testify as an expert witness in (court) cases related to environmental damage,” Prof Saharjo said.

USING SCIENTIFIC DATA TO TRACK DOWN CULPRITS

Every day, Prof Saharjo observes images from a dedicated dashboard at the Regional Fire Management Resource Center – South East Asia at the university.

It uses three different satellites and shows images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency.

The technology can detect hotspots, fire spots, and well as the source and direction of wind and haze in Southeast Asia.

It is the only one in the region and can even track past data.

Prof Saharjo sends the information regularly to agencies responsible for preventing and mitigating forest fires such as the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the disaster agency.

“For example, recently there was a big fire in West Kalimantan. We told the local authorities that the fires were approaching a certain place, please act quickly because the fires were on peatland,” he said.

READ: Planting crops, building wells – Local volunteers take the lead to prevent yearly peatland fires in Indonesia's Riau

Sometimes Prof Saharjo goes to the ground to investigate cases by drilling the peatland if there are requests from the police, the government and universities.

“Every step I take is not that different from regular research. From determining the location, the case, the samples, the method and where to analyse it … so it becomes one chain which is hard to dispute," he explained.

This picture taken on Sep 19, 2019 shows firefighters battling a forest fire near Pekanbaru, Riau. Indonesia is battling forest fires causing toxic haze across southeast Asia with aircraft, artificial rain and even prayer, President Joko Widodo said during a visit to a hard-hit area. (Photo: AFP/Wahyudi)

For his work, Prof Saharjo won the John Maddox prize, an award for researchers who show great courage in standing up for science and scientific reasoning despite hostility, in London last November.

He was among 200 nominees.

He also received the Global Landscape Fire Award from Germanys University of Freiburg last September for his commitment in forest protection.

ANTICIPATING THE PEAK OF THE DRY SEASON

As Indonesia is about to enter the peak of the dry season, which usually increases the likelihood of land and forest fires, Prof Saharjo is extra vigilant.

FILE PHOTO: A member of Manggala Agni (forest fire brigade) tries to extinguish peatland fires at a palm plantation in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, September 4, 2019. (Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman via Reuters)

“The government has agreed to control fires as soon as possible. So operations like weather modification and video call meetings with all the local governments have been conducted.

“But its like having 10 children and not everyone turns out well … and the Environment and Forestry Ministrys directorate general of law enforcement is chasing after cases not only involving domestic investors but also the ones from neighbouring countries,” Prof Saharjo said.

READ: Indonesia on high alert for forest fires until November as dry season is delayed, says environment minister

When dealing with court cases, there are many challenges he needs to tackle. For instance, suspects will always try to defend themselves by coming up with excuses.

Some argued that the burnt land is not “damaged” because grass still grows on it, Prof Saharjo told CNA.

“But has it ever crossed their mind that the burnt peatland takes dozens if not hundreds of years to be restored?

“Also, during the fires, greenhouse gas emissions are released … so thats not correct.”

Firefighters battling a fire in a palm plantation. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

In 2015, Indonesia had to deal with the biggest fires in almost 20 years which burned about 2.6 million ha of land. Prof Saharjo and his team worked together with an American university funded by NASA to examine the peatland fires.

They used a special detector imported from the United States to take samples of the burnt peatland in Central Kalimantan province.

There was only one of it in the entire world, he said, and it has even been used on Mars.

“For the first time in the world, the samples we took showed that there were 90 gas types in the smoke. This was published in an international journal inRead More – Source