By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, July 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Green groups have urged the Indonesian government to step up help for hundreds of thousands of people made sick by forest fires and the haze they cause each year, after the nation's top court ruled Jakarta must do more to stem the problem.
The Supreme Court last week upheld rulings by lower courts on a civil lawsuit brought by seven Indonesian residents against President Joko Widodo, cabinet ministers and local governments over their handling of forest fires in 2015.
"The government can learn from what happened in 2015 and now needs to do some serious homework for the future," said Nur Hidayati, executive director of Friends of the Earth Indonesia.
Hidayati told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was the first ruling by the Supreme Court on the state's constitutional responsibilities relating to fires and haze, describing the verdict as a "big milestone for Indonesian citizens".
Drifting haze from fires to prepare land for plantations that supply the palm oil, paper and wood pulp industries is a regular and serious problem across Southeast Asia, particularly between the months of July and November.
In 2015, one of the worst peatland and forest fire crises blanketed much of the region with a thick haze, causing billions of dollars in economic losses.
In a 2016 report, the World Bank said 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) in Indonesia were burned between June and October 2015, mainly on Sumatra and Borneo islands.
A Harvard University study linked the haze to more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in 2015, a year of particularly intense fire activity.
"The conclusion is the government should fulfil its obligation to protect its citizens against the disaster," a Supreme Court spokesman was quoted as saying by local media.
"It should work on necessary efforts to stop wildfires from happening."
The environment and forestry minister and Central Kalimantan governor were ordered to publicly name companies that owned land where the 2015 fires broke out, reports said.
The ruling said the president should issue regulations providing guidance on compensation for damage in such cases.
The government should also build a lung hospital for the 2015 haze victims, according to the ruling, while other hospitals were directed to provide them with free health care.
Indonesian Forestry and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar did not respond to requests for comment.
"Every year new generations of Indonesians are exposed to fires and haze," said Arie Rompas, a Central Kalimantan resident and Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner who was part of the lawsuit.
"Indonesia's communities have had enough - they need real government leadership that is serious about putting an end to the forest fires and their health and environmental impacts, once and for all," she said in a statement.
Indonesia's government switched its focus from containing fires to preventing them after the 2015 disaster, which cost the country $16 billion and caused more than 500,000 people to suffer respiratory ailments.
New policies include educating and training communities in fire prevention and setting up a Peatland Restoration Agency.
Forest and peatland fires in Indonesia declined dramatically over the last two years, but more work was needed, said David Gaveau, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research.
"It became evident during the 2015 fires that the government cannot address this problem alone," he said.
Hidayati said she hoped the court ruling would ignite a wider debate on the need for better care for haze victims.
"Putting out fires and law enforcement is important, but what is still lacking is how the victims pay for disasters for a long period of time afterwards," she said by phone from Jakarta.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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