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Forest fires hit parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan islands of Indonesia this year due to illegal slash-and-burn activities by companies and local people.

Bambang Hero Saharjo wins 2019 John Maddox Prize should be an inspiration for scientists to stand up for environment in courtrooms

The achievement of Indonesia’s prolific forest fires expert, Bambang Hero Saharjo, in winning the 2019 John Maddox Prize should inspire other environmental experts to share their research findings on courtrooms, despite threats and intimidation, for the sake of the environment.

A professor of forestry and forest fires forensics at Bogor Agricultural University (IPB University), Bambang received the prestigious award on Tuesday in London, for sharing his research findings as an expert witness for at least 500 forest fire cases in Indonesia since 2000 despite facing harassment, intimidation and lawsuits.

Indonesia is home to the third-largest tropical forest in the world. Yet forest fires happen almost every year, affecting neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

The disaster costs Indonesian government at least US$10 billion a year as the haze has caused respiratory problems and forced schools and airports to close.

The annual fires are mostly results of companies’ slash-and-burn techniques as they are considered as a cheap way to clear land.

The government has prohibited the practice, yet some firms still do it, forcing the police to file criminal charges against the violators.

The police have investigated more than 130 plantation companies and individual farmers for illegal burning this year.

“It is not just about the numbers of trials he [Bambang] had testified but I know his commitment for environmental law enforcement. I hope this can be example and inspire other scientists on how science have positive contribution for law enforcement. Law enforcement needs science,” said Henri Subagiyo, executive director of Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law (ICEL).

Henri said only few experts were willing to become an expert witness in courts for numbers of reasons. Most of them fear of their own safety, he added

Since 2000, Bambang has already supported police investigation with his research, a role that puts him in the confronting position from companies behind the fires.

Bambang Hero Saharjo (four from left) receives the 2019 John Maddox for his consistency on using scientific evidence to bring illegal forest fires culprits to justice for the span of 20 years.

He received countless death threats and intimidation. Last year, a palm oil company filed lawsuits for his testimonies. The company dropped the lawsuits for insufficient documents.

Read more: What it takes to put out forest fires

Forest ecologist Basuki Wasis, who is also part of Bambang’s investigation team since 2000, said that many scientists could not cope with the immense pressure from a courtroom, especially on environmental cases.

“There’s not [many] campuses that would teach you about the [pressure on] courtrooms. I still even feel that fear and nervousness at times in courts. But, there should be more scientists come forward and stand as expert witness to protect our environment,” said Basuki.

Read more: We built an app to detect areas most vulnerable to life-threatening haze

Similar to Bambang, Basuki has also become the target of intimidation and harassment by companies they were up against in the courts. He was sued for his testimony against a mining company in Buton Island, Southeast Sulawesi. The lawsuit was dropped by the court.

“We (scientists) can help, environment is not just about Indonesia, or local, but the whole population in this planet needs to fight for the environment,” he said.

Bambang told The Conversation that he couldn’t believe that he had received the award.

He won the award after defeating 206 scientists from 38 countries.

“What I am doing is simply to restore public rights for healthy environment and one way is by leaning on scientific evidence. This is what I have been doing these times,” he said.

“This prize is a major encouragement for me to keep going. It is just a proof that if we can be consistent in using science the right way then supports will come from anywhere, and this one comes from England.”

Another recipient for this year’s John Maddox Prize for early career researcher category is Olivier Bernard, a pharmacist from Quebec, Canada.

Bernard became the target of a smear campaign and received death threats for revealing that high-dose vitamin C injection endorsed by alternative health advocates for cancer patients cannot be proven scientifically.

His action encouraged the government to establish a taskforce to protect scientists who speak on sensitive subjects.

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