Judges slammed for refusing to rule on fate of peat swamp forest

The administrative court in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, has refused to rule in a case brought by environmentalists who are trying to halt the destruction of the Tripa peat swamp forest.

The decision has been slammed by environmentalist battling to save Tripa.

Animal protection groups fear the orangutan population in the peat swamp could be wiped out within months if the palm oil licences in the area are not revoked.

Fires set to clear the land for palm oil are raging through the swamp and orangutans are being wiped out in the companies’ race to make profits.

Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) had asked for the permit granted to the company PT Kallista Alam by the governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, to be cancelled.

The Aceh court said yesterday (April 3) that it had no authority to examine Walhi Aceh’s challenge to the permit because the parties involved hadn’t tried to solve the case outside of court.

Walhi will now appeal to the high court.

“If our challenge had no legal basis, then why wasn’t it rejected at the beginning?” said the director of Walhi Aceh, T. Muhammad Zulfikar. He pointed to Article 53 of the Law on National Administration and said the court was legally obliged to hear and rule on the case.

Zulfikar accused the judges of distorting the course of justice. “Their decision demonstrates the extent to which they are prepared to go to avoid taking sides with ordinary people and environmental justice.”

The Coalition to Save Tripa Peat Forest said the judges’ decision should be fully investigated by the supreme court. “They are allowing the continued destruction of the environment; their decision not to rule in this case is an embarrassment to the Indonesian Judicial system.”

Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation and head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said the important thing now was to try and ensure that PT Kallista Alam’s activities in the peat swamp are halted while the case goes to appeal. “We need to continue to lobby for the clearance and burning activities of other palm oil companies in Tripa to be halted immediately, too.”

The Tripa swamp forest is home to the world’s densest population of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan. As the blazes rage, vital carbon stocks are being destroyed, along with local livelihoods. As the peat swamp lies within the Leuser Ecosystem area it should, according to government regulations, be protected land.

Despite the peat swamp being on protected land, and the area being off-limits for palm oil under a government moratorium, PT Kallista Alam was last year given a permit to develop a 1,605-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of the swamp.

Conversion of the 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.

Up to 100 orangutans are thought to 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.

“We are happy that Walhi will be appealing,” said Graham Usher from the group Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem, who is at the forefront of the campaign to save the Tripa swamp. “The hearings would be held in Medan, where we can mobilize much more support, and the judges would be under much less political pressure, which was definitely a factor in this case.

Walhi’s national executive director Berry Nahdian Forqan said: “The weak ruling by the judges in Banda Aceh proves yet again that Indonesia’s commitment to emissions reduction is nothing more than political posturing.”

Forqan also referred to the Letter of Intent signed by Norway and Indonesia in May 2010, and Norway’s pledge to contribute US$1 billion under the UN-REDD programme, which aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

“If I was a Norwegian taxpayer, I would be asking my government why my taxes are going to a country that is not keeping its side of the bargain,” Forqan said.

PT Kallista Alam’s legal team expressed satisfaction with the court ruling and said the company was not destroying the environment by converting peat swamp forest into a palm oil plantation.

Before the Aceh hearing began, police and immigration officials prevented two foreign observers from entering the courtroom, stating that the observers had no purpose reporting Aceh court matters to the world. The two were held and questioned by immigration for five hours before being released.

Over the past week, more than 30,000 people around the world have signed petitions calling for the protection of the Tripa peat swamp and its orangutan population.

Categories: Environment, Indonesia