A scientist who takes on the companies responsible for massive wildfires across Indonesia has won the prestigious John Maddox prize for standing up for science in the face of harassment, intimidation and lawsuits.

Bambang Hero Saharjo, a fire forensics specialist at Bogor Agricultural University, gathers evidence for criminal trials against firms that are accused of using illegal slash-and-burn methods to clear peatland for cash crops such as palm oil, pulpwood and rubber trees.

As an expert witness, Saharjo has received death threats and phone calls warning that his wife and family will come to harm if he continues the work. People have come to the university looking for him, sending his staff into a panic.

“My colleagues tell me I am ‘most wanted’ by the companies behind the fires and that they can do anything they want to me, my family and my career,” Saharjo told the Guardian. “Of course I think about that, but as a scientist I have to say the truth. If I stopped then I would be the same as them. I should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

The annual fires smother much of Indonesia and parts of Singapore and Malaysia in a blanket of smoke that causes widespread acute respiratory problems and, according to Unicef, puts the health of 10 million children at risk. The haze has forced schools and airports to close. Overall, the economic cost to Indonesia can top more than $10bn (£7.8bn) each year.

While some fires start naturally in the dry season, most are set intentionally by companies that see slash and burn as a cheap way to clear land for crops. When the fires ignite layers of peat beneath the forests, the blazes can be impossible to put out until the monsoon arrives. Beyond the direct health effects of the haze, the fires can release more than 1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide in a single season.

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Saharjo, who has testified in about 500 cases, uses scientific methods to trace where and when fires begin, what paths they take and how much smoke and greenhouse gases they release. The information is then presented in court. In 2015, his testimony helped secure a guilty verdict against the palm oil company JJP. In 2018, the firm filed a $33.5m lawsuit against Saharjo, claiming his testimony was faulty, but later withdrew the action.

“I’m very surprised to get the prize. I don’t think people outside see what I’m doing in the field,” Saharjo said. Asked if it would help in his work, Saharjo said it would give him more power to fight the companies who continue to use fires to clear land.

A second John Maddox prize for an early career researcher was awarded to Olivier Bernard, a pharmacist in Quebec, who called out alternative health advocates who lobbied for the government to approve and reimburse high-dose vitamin C injections for cancer patients. There is no evidence such injections work. Bernard became the target of a smear campaign and received death threats, but after speaking out, the government established a taskforce to protect scientists who speak on sensitive subjects.

The prize is awarded jointly by the charity Sense about Science and the journal Nature, where John Maddox was a former editor.

Tracey Brown, the director of Sense about Science, said: “In Bambang and Olivier we see people standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens and championing the value of scientific reasoning for us all. They saw the easier path of silence or complicity and rejected it to take responsibility for communicating evidence.”

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