A group of leading environmentalists have written to the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asking him to halt the destruction of Sumatra’s rainforests and enforce laws to protect orangutans and their habitat.
The patrons of the Great Apes Survival Partnership – Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, Richard Wrangham and Russell Mittermeier – said Indonesia’s biodiversity was under “extreme threat”.
The group, also known as GRASP, are acting in response to the illegal actions of palm oil companies in the Tripa peat forest, which is being ravaged by fires set to make way for palm oil. The forest, in northern Sumatra, is in the Leuser Ecosystem and should be off-limits for palm oil cultivation.
“The fires set to clear forest land in the Province of Aceh for oil palm plantations currently threaten the Leuser Ecosystem, which includes some of the most important great ape habitat in the world,” they wrote. “Experts believe that as many as 300 critically endangered Sumatran orangutans may perish in the fires, pushing the species even closer to extinction.”
The group urge the Indonesian government to enforce the laws that should be protecting the orangutans and their habitat, suspend all activities by oil palm companies on recently cleared and burned lands in the Leuser Ecosystem, ban further land drainage and forest clearing in the Tripa peat swamps, and honour commitments made in the 2005 Kinshasa Declaration on Great Apes and the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
“Indonesia contains some of the world’s most spectacular biodiversity, but that same biodiversity is under extreme threat, affecting issues such as the continued supply of clean water, clean air, local and regional climate stability, and other threats to life on earth.”
The Tripa swamp forest is home to the world’s densest population of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan. Up to 100 of them are thought to have perished in forest clearing and peat burning in the past few months.
“Another 100 orangutans are estimated to have died between 2009 and 2011 – killed either in the conversion process or because of starvation and malnutrition,” said Graham Usher of the group Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem..
There are fewer than 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces. 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.
Last year, the then governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, granted a permit to the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam to develop a 1,600-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of the peat swamp.
Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) challenged the plantation plans in court, but the judges in the Aceh administrative court refused to rule. Walhi will now appeal to the high court.
Conversion of the 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.
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 the bilateral Letter of Intent it signed with Indonesia on May 27, 2010, and any payment of the US$1 billion promised under that 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 Norway-Indonesia deal comes under the umbrella of the UN-REDD programme, aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Under the scheme, major financial incentives can be granted to developing countries that fulfil emission-reducing criteria.
Norway has pledged up to US$1 billion over 7 to 8 years, based on Indonesia’s performance. It was a condition of the deal that Indonesia impose a two-year moratorium on the granting of new permits to clear rainforests and peatlands. One weakness of the moratorium is that concessions already granted when it was signed in May 2011 are exempt.
Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of Indonesia’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) task force is reported to be investigating the granting of the Tripa oil palm concession to PT Kallista Allam. The area in question was on the original moratorium map, but is absent from a revised version.
According to the Jakarta Post, Mangkusubroto has asked the National Land Agency to provide a map of the Tripa area so he can investigate the violations alleged by environmental groups and local communities.
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.
In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRASP published Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra, which indicated that the Leuser Ecosystem rose in value by 71 percent if economic benefits derived through conservation were adopted in favour of agricultural conversion.
The president of The Orangutan Project in Australia, Leif Cocks, has appealed to the Australian government to ask the Indonesian government to uphold its laws and prevent the destruction of the Tripa swamp. He said the problem with the current REDD development process was that it was like developing a fire management plan while the house was burning.
* GRASP is an alliance of member nations, conservation organisations, United Nations agencies, and private supporters; it was created in 2001 to protect great apes and their habitat in Africa and Asia.
* The Leuser Ecosystem is classified as National Strategic Area for Environmental Protection under Indonesia’s National Spatial Plan, and is an important part of the country’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) programme. The Ecosystem constitutes the buffer zone for the Leuser Biosphere Reserve and is on a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
* 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.)
Photo: Carlos Quiles