Indonesia’s Environment Ministry is to launch an investigation into the issuance of a palm oil plantation concession inside the Tripa peat swamp forest in northern Sumatra.
The peat swamp is home to the world’s densest population of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan. Up to 100 are thought to have perished in forest clearing and peat burning in the past few months, and experts say they are now close to being exterminated in the area.
News of the government investigation comes after the head of Indonesia’s task force on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, said there was evidence that the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam had broken laws in turning the swamp forest into a plantation.
Mangkusubroto called on the Environment Ministry and the police to fully investigate the company’s actions. He said that opening a plantation inside a protected swamp area was clearly against the law.
The swamp forest is inside the Leuser Ecosystem area, which should be off-limits for conversion.
Despite this, the outgoing governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, last year granted a permit to PT Kallista Alam to develop a 1,600-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of the 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 is appealing 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.
The Tripa forest was initially included in the government’s map of areas that are off-limits for forestry activities, but is absent from a revised version.
Mangkusubroto said: “Once legal evidence is found, I expect Indonesia’s Environment Ministry and the police department to take appropriate actions to bring a halt to these activities and to penalise and recover the loss caused by ecosystem degradation in the Leuser Ecosystem area.”
He said there were indications that several laws had been broken:
– law number 18/2004 concerning plantations,
– law number 32/2009 on Living Environment Protection and Management, and
– law number 26/2007 on spatial planning.
PT Kallista Allam also appeared to have contravened presidential decree number 32/1990 on protected area management, he said.
Satellite monitoring found at least 87 fire hotspots in three palm oil concessions in the Tripa forest between March 19 and 24.
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 as the Tripa swamp is slashed and burned; the area has also been home to Sumatran tigers, Malayan sun bears and other endangered and protected wildlife.
There were some 2,000 to 3,000 orangutans in the area in the 1990s, but only a few hundred are left today.
Photo: Carlos Quiles