The first court hearing has been held in a civil case brought by Indonesia’s environment ministry against a palm oil company accused of destroying huge swathes of the Tripa peat swamp forest in northern Sumatra.
No-one turned up to represent the defendants in the case, PT Kallista Alam, and the judges had to postpone the proceedings as they could not address both parties. Indonesia’s Attorney General is a co-plaintiff in the case against the palm oil company.
One of the prosecution lawyers, Ryan Palasi, said he was disappointed that PT Kallista Alam failed to appear. “This suggests the defendant is not taking the proceedings seriously and is not committed to settling the case.”
The Tripa peat swamp forest lies within the Leuser ecosystem and should be off-limits for conversion. It is home to the highest-density population of Sumatran orangutans in the world, but it’s estimated that at least one hundred of them have perished in forest clearing and peat burning.
Conservation Director for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, Ian Singleton, said that PT Kallista Alam’s failure to attend the hearing in Aceh showed a total lack of respect for the courts, the law, and the Indonesian government. “They really must believe the rules do not apply to them.”
Singleton said he welcomed the landmark court action brought by the environment ministry. “There continues to be a huge amount of international interest in what is happening in Tripa. Earlier this year, the Administrative High Court in Medan ruled that at least one concession owned by PT Kallista Alam in Tripa was illegal, and the company’s permit was revoked.”
In September, the governor of Aceh province, Zaini Abdullah, executed the high court order and revoked an expansion permit given to PT Kallista Alam in August 2011 by the then governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf. The permit would have allowed PT Kallista Alam to plant oil palms on 1,605 hectares of the Tripa peat swamp.
“Perhaps the biggest crime”, Dr Singleton said, “is that, despite all the investigations, the court proceedings, and some successes so far, we may well end up with justice in the courts, but still lose the unique Tripa peat swamp forest ecosystem and its globally important Sumatran orangutan population.
“Time is running out, and stopping illegal activities in the field and closing the drainage canals in Tripa has to be the number one priority.”
The Tripa peat swamp forest covers nearly 62,000 hectares and about 90 percent of it is under concession to five palm oil companies. More than 25,000 people have already signed a petition calling for immediate action to halt its destruction.
Deddy Ratih, the Spatial Planning Advocacy Manager for Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) said that satellite imagery and community reports showed that at least three companies operating in Tripa – PT Kallista Alam, PT Surya Panen Subur 2, and PT Dua Perkasa Lestari – had clearly breached government legislation, including the two-year moratorium brought in to protect primary forests and peatlands.
While PT Kallista Alam’s expansion permit has been revoked, the company can still cultivate oil palms within Tripa; it can work on the concession it was granted in December 1995, half of which comes within the Leuser ecosystem. This permit hasn’t been revoked.
The chairman of Walhi Aceh, Teuku Muhammad Zulfikar, said Walhi applauded the determination shown by the environment ministry in bringing the case to court. “Aceh’s natural resources must be managed more sustainably in the future. For this to happen, there needs to be improved governance, and law breakers need to be made accountable. We urge businesses operating in Aceh to halt all environmentally destructive activities. Much of the destruction of the Tripa ecosystem has been done illegally; now it’s time to redress the balance and bring those responsible to book.”
The biodiversity found in Tripa is exceptional and it is not just the orangutan population that is in jeopardy; Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants, and Malayan sun bears are also endangered.
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.
Destruction of the Tripa peat swamp also results in reduced buffering against flooding and drought. The area was hit by a tsunami in 2004 and needs all the protection it can get.
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 is the world’s main palm oil producer. The country already has 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another 4 million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone.
In the hearing on November 27, the environment ministry was represented by prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office.
The next hearing in the case against PT Kallista Alam is scheduled to be held in the Meulaboh district court in Aceh Province on December 12.
The start of legal proceedings against PT Kallista Alam coincides with a visit to Indonesia by the Crown Prince of Norway, Haakon Magnus, and his wife, Crown Princess Mette-Marit.
The Crown Prince is expected to discuss environmental issues with the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, during his visit.
In 2010, Norway pledged to provide up to US$1 billion over 7 to 8 years to help protect Indonesian forests on the condition that there is a verifiable reduction in deforestation in the country.
Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) urged the Crown Prince and the Indonesian President to visit Tripa. “They could see at first hand the continuing deforestation, including those areas that are clearly off limits under the agreement between the two countries,” said Walhi’s Deddy Ratih.
“We can alert them to the realities on the ground and the fact that forest clearance and drainage of the peatlands is still continuing despite the ongoing legal processes. The activities of all the palm oil companies in Tripa need to be examined to ensure that the companies are working within the terms of their permits. If the permits are not legal, they should be revoked immediately.”
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.
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.