Indonesia's Sampoerna Agro fined record sum for 2014 forest fires

By Bernadette Christina Munthe JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian plantation company Sampoerna Agro is considering how to respond to a recent court ruling that handed down the country's largest ever fine to a company linked to forest fires, a company official said on Monday. "We're still studying this," Sampoerna Agro spokesman Michael Kesuma told Reuters when asked whether the company would appeal the decision. Kesuma referred to a Jakarta court ruling on August 11 that found Sampoerna unit PT National Sago Prima negligent in relation to fires on 3,000 hectares of its concessions in Riau in 2014, and handed down fines totaling 1.07 trillion rupiah ($81.62 million). According to a spokesman at Indonesia's environment ministry, the fine is the biggest ever to be handed down to a company linked to fires. Five other lawsuits are currently being pursued by the government against companies linked to forest fires, environment ministry spokesman Novrizal said in a written statement. An intensification of law enforcement by Indonesia could help deter companies and individuals from using fire to clear land. Last year PT Kalista Alam was fined 366 billion rupiah in relation to fires in Aceh province. Indonesia's efforts to penalize companies allegedly responsible for its annual forest fires suffered a setback in late 2015 when a judge rejected a $565 million lawsuit against a pulp and paper firm, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau. Fires in Indonesia, often set in the dry season by companies clearing land for plantations, cause an annual "haze" crisis that blankets large parts of the region in choking smog. Home to the world's third-largest area of tropical forests, Indonesia has been criticized by green activists and by neighboring Southeast Asian nations for failing to stop the annual haze. The heavy smoke from slash-and-burn clearing often comes from the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where large forest concessions are used by pulp and paper and palm oil companies, some of which are listed in Singapore. Singapore said in June it was planning to prosecute Indonesian polluters in Singapore courts under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act. (Writing by Fergus Jensen; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)