Environmentalists are facing a serious setback because of a court judgement in Indonesia that opens the way to further destruction of the Tripa peat swamp forest by the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam.
The Banda Aceh Administrative Court in Sumatra has overturned the revoking of a palm oil permit by the governor of Aceh province, Zaini Abdullah.
The judges ruled in favour of PT Kallista Alam, who had appealed against the revoking of their licence to plant oil palms on 1,605 hectares of the Tripa peat swamp in Aceh.
Zaini Abdullah had revoked the permit in September 2012 in accordance with a ruling by the Administrative High Court in Medan, which ruled that the permit was illegal. The licence had been given to PT Kallista Alam in August 2011 by the then governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf
Announcing the new judgement, the presiding judge, Yusri Arbi, said that the revoking of the permit was not legally binding because the court decision was being challenged in the Supreme Court.
PT Kallista Alam had filed an appeal against the Medan court decision with the Supreme Court and also took the case back to the Banda Aceh Administrative Court.
The Tripa peat swamp lies within the Leuser ecosystem and, as such, should be off-limits for conversion. It is home to the highest-density population of Sumatran orangutans in the world, but it is 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 there were several thousand orangutans in Tripa before the palm oil companies arrived. “The number then dropped to a few hundred, and those remaining are in immediate jeopardy.”
PT Kallista Alam has already slashed and burned huge swathes of the Tripa forest. Whilst its expansion permit was temporarily revoked, it retained the right to cultivate oil palms within Tripa. It was granted a concession in December 1995, half of which comes within the Leuser ecosystem, and this permit wasn’t revoked.
The Aceh government and Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI ) will appeal against the most recent judgement. The Aceh government says PT Kallista Alam’s operations have damaged the environment and led to conflicts with residents.
Dozens of activists protested outside the Banda Aceh court. Irsadi Aristora from the Coalition to Save Tripa warned of the great damage the ruling could do to Tripa and the local community.
The director of WALHI Aceh, T.M. Zulfikar, said the verdict was a setback in the efforts to conserve Tripa and protect the orangutans living there.
He said PT Kallista Alam should not have been able to contest the revoking of its permit as the Aceh government had full authority to issue or revoke business permits as part of its extended authority as a special region.
PT Kallista Alam has also been taken to court in a civil case brought by Indonesia’s environment ministry. The country’s attorney-general is a co-plaintiff.
The new court ruling is a severe blow at a time when campaigners are fighting against a new spatial plan for Aceh, which environmentalists say will lead to the destruction of a further 1.2 million hectares of rainforest.
Large areas of protected forest would be re-zoned for industrial activities and the Tripa peat forest and other areas within the Leuser Ecosystem would lose their protected status.
Media reports say the government aims to approve the Aceh spatial plan within a month.
The Tripa 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 signed a petition calling for immediate action to halt its destruction.
The biodiversity found in the forest 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.
And 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.
Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but their destruction is causing 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 is also resulting 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 spatial planning advocacy manager for WALHI, Deddy Ratih, says satellite imagery and community reports show that at least three companies operating in Tripa – PT Kallista Alam, PT Surya Panen Subur 2, and PT Dua Perkasa Lestari – have clearly breached government legislation, including the two-year moratorium brought in to protect primary forests and peatlands.
The moratorium is due to expire on May 20. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is expected to approve its extension despite opposition from the agricultural minister and the palm oil industry, but environmental groups are worried that there could be a gap, which industrialists would quickly exploit.
WALHI says the new spatial plan for Aceh is being developed “via a highly unhealthy process, in which foreign corporations are intervening and driving local policy”.
One company actively involved in developing the plan is the Canadian mining company East Asia Minerals, which is mining for gold in Aceh.
Ratih has called for immediate rejection of the plan. “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.”
The spatial plan needs to be approved by Aceh’s provincial parliament and signs are that local elected representatives will vote yes.
In January, the chairman of the Aceh parliament’s spatial planning committee, Teuku Anwar, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that the local government intended to reduce Aceh’s total forest cover “from about 68 percent of the province’s land mass to 45 percent”.
Other local government officials have since said this is an exaggerated calculation.
The Aceh government banned the granting of new logging permits six years ago to protect the rainforest, but the new administration that came in last year is in favour of allowing logging again.
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.
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 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.
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.
Photo: Carlos Quiles