A Canadian mining company, East Asia Minerals, is reported to be pushing for more than one million hectares of protected forest in Indonesia to be cleared.
The company says it is actively involved in developing a new spatial plan for the province of Aceh, in northwestern Sumatra, where it mines for gold. Evironmentalists say the spatial plan will lead to the clearing of 1.2 million hectares of protected forest.
This is a shocking development that further menaces wildlife and biodiversity in Aceh, where thousands of acres of the Tripa peat forest have already been slashed and burned by palm oil companies.
Under the proposed new spatial plan, large areas of protected forest would be re-zoned for industrial activities.
The plan would reduce the total forest cover in Aceh from 68% to 45%.
The Tripa peat forest and other areas within the Leuser Ecosystem would lose their protected status.
“This spatial plan is being developed via a highly unhealthy process, in which foreign corporations are intervening and driving local policy”. said Dedi Ratih, Spatial Planning Campaigner for WALHI (Friends of The Earth Indonesia).
“Reclassification of these forests is clearly not in the best interests of Aceh’s local communities. It would result in the massive exploitation of Aceh’s natural resources. This plan should be rejected immediately.”
Media in Indonesia have reported that the government aims to approve the spatial plan within a month. The plan also needs to be approved by Aceh’s provincial parliament and signs are that local elected representatives will vote yes.
The Aceh government banned the granting of new logging permits six years ago to protect the forest, but a new administration that came in last year is in favour of allowing logging again.
Conservationists in Aceh say that, under the re-zoning, about one million hectares of land would be mined, 416,086 hectares would be given over to logging, and 256,250 hectares would be converted to oil palm plantations.
Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said: “The Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh is a world-renowned protected area; it is the only place on earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants are found living side by side. And there are myriad other threatened species living in this area. If these plans proceed, their future is in immediate jeopardy.”
Devastation of Tripa
Already, there is an international campaign to save the Tripa peat swamp forest, which lies within the Leuser ecosystem and is home to the highest-density population of Sumatran orangutans in the world. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 orangutans in the Tripa area in the 1990s, but only a few hundred at most are left today.
It is estimated that at least one hundred of them have perished in forest clearing and peat burning.
Indonesia’s environment ministry has brought a civil case against PT Kallista Alam, one of the palm oil companies accused of destroying huge swathes of the Tripa forest.
Aceh is not only home to precious wildlife habitat; it holds valuable carbon stocks that are already being destroyed by the palm oil companies operating in the area.
According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion. Indonesia is now the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, following behind the U.S. and China.
No less than 10 million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.
Only about 12,000 hectares of the original 60,000 hectares of the Tripa peat swamp forest remain. The rest has been broken up and degraded as palm oil companies drain the swamp.
The level of water in local wells has dropped dramatically and destruction of the Tripa peat swamp has reduced buffering against flooding and drought. The area was hit by a tsunami in 2004 and needs all the protection it can get.
East Asia Minerals said this week that it expects the governor of Aceh province, Zaini Abdullah, to allow it and other extractive industries to mine 1.2 million hectares of currently protected rainforest.
The company says it is working closely with government officials and has staff in Aceh lobbying for the reclassification.
East Asia Minerals also says it has hired Fadel Muhammad, a former senior Indonesian government official who is facing corruption charges, to help them in its efforts to get large tracts of Aceh reclassified from “protected forest” to “production forest “.
Fadel Muhammad, a former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and the former governor of Gorontalo Province, is accused of misusing 5.4 billion rupiah (US$ 567,000) in the 2001 provincial budget during his tenure as Gorontalo’s governor.
According to a statement from East Asia Minerals, the chairman of the Aceh provincial government’s spatial planning committee, Tgk. Anwar, has said Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry has accepted almost 100 percent of the new spatial plan.
Mining already underway
East Asia Minerals has already been drilling and mining at its Miwah mine, one of its three operations in Aceh. The company says the reclassification “will allow it to fully exploit the area’s mining potential and expand exploratory drilling – pushing into areas that are currently protected”.
The company states on its website that it plans to expand its excavations in all directions from the Moon River, which flows near to the Miwah site.
Areas of the Aceh forest that have been identified as too high or too steep to be converted for palm oil – or having inappropriate soil to grow oil palms – have been identified for protection under existing planning laws. According to those campaigning against reclassification, these areas are completely inappropriate for other extractive uses, including logging and mining.
Illegal logging and mining is already taking place in these areas.
The new spatial plan would include approval of an extensive new network of roads, which would open up the area to yet more forest destruction and encroachment, which would have catastrophic consequences for local communities and agriculture downstream.
“This is a dangerous move,” said Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist who worked on a major review of Aceh’s forestry sector for the previous governor, Irwandi Yusuf. “Aceh’s people have experienced countless devastating landslides that were caused by exactly this kind of forest clearing and disregard for planning laws. This will result in yet more lives being lost in coming years, and immeasurable losses to local economies.”
Usher added : “The East Asia Minerals press release is one of the strangest that I have ever seen. It essentially suggests that they and other extractive companies are effectively driving public policy, namely spatial planning, in Aceh. Not only is this a shocking admission of flawed governance, but the company even seems proud of it. Spatial planning should be based on sound scientific analysis of land suitability and environmental risks, not the profit margins of foreign companies.”
The Asia chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) stated recently that Aceh’s forests were “essential for food security and regulating water flows in both the monsoon and drought seasons to irrigate rice fields and other cash crops”.
It added: “Forest disruption in Aceh’s upland areas will increase the risk of destructive flooding for people living downstream in the coastal lowlands.”
The group said the new spatial plan could damage Aceh’s food security and exacerbate conflict in a region that suffered from more than a decade of civil strife from the early 1990s to the early 2000s.
Ian Singleton said the plan would result in the Tripa peat swamp forest losing its protected status, and even more of its carbon stocks.
“Aceh would be far better off if it worked towards a more sustainable economy rather than trashing the resources it has left to the benefit of the highest bidder.”
Aceh has the most forest cover of any province in Sumatra, but has lost more than a third of its forests in the past 20 years.
The entire island is being devastated; it is awash with palm oil and blighted by the huge pipelines laid by the US oil and gas company Chevron. PT Chevron Pacific Indonesia operates 90 crude oil fields in Sumatra alone.
As recently as the 1960s, 82 percent of Indonesia was covered with tropical rainforests. Today only about half of the country is forested.
There was a time when tigers, leopards, rhinos, elephants, gibbons, orangutans, and sun bears all roamed free in virgin forest in Sumatra.
Much of the animals’ habitat has already been destroyed, and, if the proposed new spatial plan goes ahead, there are serious fears that the wildlife in Aceh will be driven to extinction.
More than 18,000 people have already signed a change.org petition calling on the governor and vice-governor of Aceh to think again about the spatial plan and the destruction it would cause.
The Rainforest Action Network is urging people to send a letter to the Indonesian president and the secretary-general of the forestry ministry, calling on them to reject the “misguided plan to un-protect portions of the Leuser Protected Ecosystem”:
Indonesia’s two-year moratorium on the conversion of primary forest and peatland is due to expire on May 20. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is expected to approve its extension despite opposition from the country’s agricultural minister and the palm oil industry, but environmental groups are worried that there could be a gap, which industrialists would quickly exploit.
The moratorium was signed as part of an agreement with
Norway. In May 2010 the Norwegian government signed a bilateral Letter of Intent, pledging up to US$1 billion over seven to eight years, based on Indonesia’s success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Norway-Indonesia deal comes under the umbrella of the UN-REDD programme, which is 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 bilateral 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.