Science in the court: Expert knowledge and forest fires in Indonesia’s plantations

Crawford School of Public Policy | Indonesia Project

Event details

Indonesia Study Group

Date & time

Wednesday 21 July 2021


Online via Zoom


Rini Astuti (NUS, ANU)


ANU Indonesia Project

Wednesday, 21 July 2021 12.30 - 2.00 pm AEST/9.30-11 am WIB

In Indonesia, forest fires inside plantation concession areas often become highly-charged and politically-contested events. In the aftermath of major fires, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry typically commissions expert witnesses to collect evidence, in order to bring companies into court and hold them accountable. On the other hand, companies assemble their own expert teams, to counter the government’s allegations. Expert witnesses’ expertise, views, and practices are important in informing the courts’ decisions. However, there has been a gap in the literature examining the role and works of these expert witnesses. Drawing on the literature on knowledge politics, this research finds that expert witnesses arrange and interpret scientific evidence in ways that will advance their respective clients’ interests, despite making claims that are often contrary to widely accepted scientific arguments. In doing so, industry- affiliated experts have succeeded in swaying some key judicial proceedings in their favour. This raises significant questions about the politics of expert knowledge, and the high-level influence of pro-industry experts in legitimizing the poor land and fire management practices in the commercial plantations sector. The effect of these legal contests is to undermine the industry’s accountability for their significant socio-ecological impacts in Indonesia’s forest zone. The situation also highlights challenges within Indonesia’s judicial court system, and their ability to provide sound and impartial rulings on complex issues in forest fire science.

Rini Astuti is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore, and a Visiting Fellow at the Crawford School for Public Policy, Australian National University. Her research has investigated resource governance and multi-layered socio-environmental conflicts in Indonesia, tracing local community relationships with other actors at different scales.

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