Land burning in Indonesia is wiping out orangutans

The Tripa peat swamp forest on the northwestern coast of Sumatra is being ravaged by fires set to clear land for palm oil. Orangutans are being wiped out in the companies’ race to make profits.

The swamp forest is home to the world’s densest population of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan. As the fires rage, vital carbon stocks are being destroyed, along with local livelihoods.

The peat swamp lies within the Leuser Ecosystem area and should, according to government regulations, be protected land.

Despite this, and the area being off-limits for palm oil under a government moratorium, the company PT Kallista Alam was last year given a permit to develop a 1,600-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of the swamp.

The law is being blatantly broken and environmentalists are challenging the plantation plans in court. They are calling for an immediate cancellation of the PT Kallista Alam permit. A decision is due in Banda Aceh today.

The permit was accorded by the governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf.

Conversion of the Tripa peat swamp into palm oil plantations will cause massive emissions of greenhouse gas and reduce buffering against flooding and drought. The area was hit by a tsunami in 2004 and needs all the protection it can get.

In the early 1990s there were 3,000 orangutans in the Tripa forest; now there are only about 200.

“The last remaining orangutans will be exterminated within months if the fires continue, said Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation and head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

Graham Usher of the group Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem, said: “We suspect that up to 100 orangutans may have perished in forest clearing and peat burning in the last few months in Tripa.”

Another 100 orangutans are estimated to have died between 2009 and 2011 – killed either in the conversion process or because of starvation and malnutrition.

Experts believe there are about 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 80 percent of them in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia. (There are two distinct species of orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan and the species found in Borneo.)

According to figures from 2004, there are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces.

The Tripa peat swamp is a UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Partnership priority site for great ape conservation. “It is in immediate jeopardy, and unless the current wave of destruction can be halted it is likely to be exterminated before the end of the year,” Singleton said.

“Ironically, any orangutans that are captured and kept illegally as pets during this process will be the ‘lucky’ ones, the survivors, but they will be refugees from a forest that no longer exists. The others will simply die, either directly in the fires, killed by people, or of gradual starvation and malnutrition as their food resources disappear. We are currently watching a global tragedy.”

Satellite monitoring found at least 87 fire hotspots in three palm oil concessions between March 19 and 24. The area is being burnt to a cinder.

Satellite images from December show that just over 12,000 hectares of the original 60,000 hectares of forest remain.

Orangutans are not the only animals in jeopardy in the Tripa swamp; the area has also been home to Sumatran tigers, Malayan sun bears and other endangered and protected wildlife.

The members of the Coalition for the Protection of the Tripa Swamp are demanding the immediate enforcement of the laws that should be protecting the area.

They are also urging the Norwegian government to suspend immediately the bilateral
Letter of Intent it signed with Indonesia on May 27, 2010, and any payment of the US$1 billion promised under the Letter of Intent, until the Indonesian government has thoroughly investigated the alleged contraventions of Indonesian law by national, provincial, and district government officials, the Aceh police force, and oil palm concession holders.

The Leuser Ecosystem was designated a National Strategic Area for Environmental Protection in the National Spatial Plan established by the Indonesian government in 2008. The issuing of a new licence to PT Kallista Alam clearly breaks the spatial planning laws.

The concession area owned by PT Kallista Alam is now absent from a revised version of the moratorium map that showed it to be off-limits for palm oil conversion.

Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) say forest clearance and canal construction began in the PT Kallista Alam concession long before the permit was granted. “And the permit was granted whilst clearly shown as off-limits for new palm oil permits under the president’s primary forests and peatlands moratorium.”

Walhi climate justice specialist Teguh Surya proposes that the moratorium on new permits should not be for a limited period only and should include provisions for improved governance of the palm oil industry, leading to more transparency, enhanced law enforcement and social accountability.

The Norway-Indonesia deal comes under the umbrella of the UN-REDD programme, which aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

To create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, developing countries are offered incentives to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. The “REDD+” initiative is aimed at boosting efforts to conserve and sustainably manage forests and increase carbon stock.

The international demand for palm oil is massive; it is present in all kinds of foodstuffs and cosmetics, and its use is now extending to biodiesel.

Indonesia already has 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another 4 million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone.

According to the environmental organisation Greenpeace, “this phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry spells disaster for local communities, biodiversity, and climate change”.

Indonesia was named in the 2008 Guinness Book of Records as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation in the world. It is also the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because of deforestation.

Peatlands lock up huge amounts of carbon, so it is essential to conserve them. Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but, because of the way they are being destroyed, they are now responsible for 4 per cent of global emissions every year. No less than ten million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.

Graham Usher said the current court case was just the beginning of a long legal road against all the companies that have been destroying Tripa. “The recent fires in Tripa are so obviously illegal that it is as if the oil palm companies are just asking to be challenged.

“The good news is that, whatever the judges’ decision today, there are more progressive government bodies looking into prosecuting the companies for environmental crimes.”


Photo: Carlos Quiles