Campaigners want world heritage protection for Sumatran forest

An aerial view of the Leuser Ecosystem, 19th November 2013. Photo: Paul Hilton

(Photo by Paul Hilton.)

An international campaign is underway to prevent further destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh, northern Sumatra. Environmentalists are appealing for the ecosystem to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Leuser Ecosystem covers six million acres and is an area of great biodiversity. It is home to the densest populations of orangutans anywhere in the world and is the only place where tigers, orangutans, elephants, sun bears and rhinos share the same habitat, but large swathes of it have already been slashed and burned by palm oil companies.

There were once several thousand orangutans in the area, but the number has dropped to a few hundred, and the survival of those remaining is in immediate jeopardy.

Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) are two of the organisations spearheading a campaign against a new spatial plan and a new governor’s regulation that they say will devastate the ecosystem.

“These new plans will legalise numerous new roads through Aceh’s forests and open up vast new areas to new timber, mining, and plantation concessions,” said SOCP conservation director Ian Singleton.

“If approved, there will be devastation of most of Aceh’s remaining lowland forests, the last stronghold for the Sumatran orangutan, tiger, rhino, and elephant.

“Elephant conflicts will increase dramatically and result in their rapid extermination. Rhinos will be hunted to extinction as roads open access into remote areas. Orangutan and tiger numbers will also plummet drastically very quickly.”

Singleton said the new plans would not only seriously impact biodiversity and regional carbon emissions, but would also seriously jeopardise the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of Aceh’s four million people.

“Flash floods already kill hundreds in Aceh each year and floods and droughts have major impacts on agricultural production. Human deaths and economic losses to local communities will both increase dramatically if these developments are not stopped immediately.”

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Irreplaceable biodiversity

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has identified the Leuser Ecosystem as one of the world’s “irreplaceable areas” that must be protected to preserve biodiversity.

There are widespread calls for the area to be given world heritage status. A petition on change.org has already attracted 9,000 signatures. It is addressed to Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the governor of Aceh Zaini Abdullah, the Minister of Public Works Djoko Kirmanto, and the forestry minister Zulkifli Hasan among others.

The petition states that the Leuser Ecosystem (Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser or KEL) provides some four million people with clean water for downstream irrigation, agriculture, and food production.

“KEL provides further environmental services to communities through mitigation of soil erosion, flooding, landslides, and pest outbreaks. Everyone knows that if we clear the forests in the hills, the rivers will become heavy with sediment, fishing will be worse, and the risk of floods will increase. Nationally and internationally, KEL plays a critical role in climate regulation and carbon storage.

“Aceh is rightly proud of these ecological services that have been valued at more than 400 million dollars per year.”

The Rainforest Action Network is also calling on people to write to the Aceh governor. Its suggested letter states that the Leuser Ecosystem “deserves to be recognized as a stand-alone World Heritage Site”.

The Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) is another organisation that has added its voice to the call for the Leuser Ecosystem to be given world heritage status.

Deadline looms

Campaigners are calling for urgent support. “The Aceh Government seeks to pass both the spatial plan and the new governor’s law before the end of December,” Singleton said. “Whether or not we have Sumatran orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and tigers in twenty years’ time depends on decisions being made in the next few weeks. We have no time to spare and must stop these catastrophic developments.”

Landscape protection specialist for the SOCP Graham Usher said: “Much of Aceh’s remaining forests are on steeply sloping terrain that should be off limits to development under existing spatial planning regulations. Clearing forests and building roads in such areas is simply not safe.

“If these forests are cleared we will see a collapse of the ecosystem, and the loss of the environmental benefits this system provides to Aceh’s people. This will lead to food security problems and a huge increase in flash floods, erosion, and landslides.

“Examination of watersheds in the context of the spatial plan being currently proposed expose some of its potentially catastrophic consequences. In the water catchments of Pidie and Banda Aceh in the north of the province, we see that large portions of the remaining forest in upper sections of several important watersheds are designated for logging. This threatens the rice production in these two important areas, especially as this region has lower, and very seasonable rainfall.

“In Tamiang, we see that there are plans to push a road, bordered by wide swathes of logging, through the Leuser Ecosystem to the Alas valley. This would negatively impact the Tamiang watershed, already infamous for huge floods in December 2006, which caused massive material and human losses.”

Ian Singleton says the Sumatran orangutan distribution coincides very closely with the Leuser Ecosystem conservation area and 85 percent of the wild population can be found within its boundaries.

“No new concessions that damage the environmental function of the Leuser Ecosystem are legally grantable. The Aceh Government is obliged to protect the Leuser Ecosystem under governance law N° 11/2006.”

Law N° 11/2006 was mandated under the 2005 Helsinki Peace Agreement that was signed by the Indonesian government and the Aceh separatist movement at the end of the civil war that began in 1976.

It states that the national, provincial, district, and municipal governments are “forbidden to issue destructive business permits within the Leuser Ecosystem”.

Lives at risk

Indonesian conservationist Tezar Pahlevie, who lives in Aceh and won the 2013 GRASP conservation award for work he and his team have done to restore rainforests damaged by illegal palm oil plantations, has also appealed to Zaini Abdullah to nominate the Leuser Ecosystem for world heritage status.


In a guest blog for the Rainforest Action Network, he wrote: “This is a really scary time for me because the governor of Aceh has on his desk a disastrous plan that would remove crucial protections from the Leuser Ecosystem, opening up huge areas of some of the world’s most biologically diverse forests to major industrial development. This new plan could be signed by the governor at any time.

“I am really sad and frustrated because every day and every month I see the destruction of the forests around my home. We in Aceh have experienced the dangerous floods that come after the logging and destroy people’s homes, livelihoods and, in some cases, take the lives of our friends or family. Witnessing all this destruction breaks my heart.

“We have a different vision for Aceh. We must protect the Leuser Ecosystem and the people who rely on it. The Aceh people have long fought to protect these forests because they provide us with clean water and food and are important for the next generation.”

Campaigners in the Aceh branch of Walhi believe there is intense pressure on Abdullah Zaini to allow the Leuser Ecosystem area to be used for oil palm cultivation.

According to Walhi Aceh, five companies have applied for permits to cultivate oil palms on sites within the Leuser Ecosystem, in East Aceh and Aceh Tamiang.

There are statistics showing that 36,000 hectares of the ecosystem were deforested from 2005 to 2009. Data analysed by the Leuser Ecosystem Management Agency showed that, in early 2005, 1.982 million hectares of land in the ecosystem was covered by forest. In 2009, there were 1.946 million hectares of forest left.

Destruction of Tripa

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(Tripa burning in 2012; photo by Carlos Quiles.)

One part of the Leuser Ecosystem that has already been devastated is the Tripa peat forest. Several court cases have been brought against the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam, which is alleged to have caused widespread environmental destruction.

The announcement of the decision in a civil lawsuit filed by the Indonesian environment ministry against PT Kallista Alam was expected on December 5, but the ruling is now not expected to be given until December 30.

PT Kallista Alam is accused of slashing and burning thousands of acres of peatland in the Darul Makmur sub-district in Nagan Raya, Aceh, to make way for oil palm cultivation.

The legal process has been running since November 8, 2012.

In August 2011, the then governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, granted PT Kallista Alam a permit to develop a 1,600-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of the peat swamp.

After a large-scale international protest that included a petition with more than 44,000 signatures, the Indonesian environment ministry decided to investigate the issuance of the permit.

In September 2012, Governor Zaini Abdullah revoked the permit in accordance with a ruling by the Administrative High Court in Medan, which ruled that the licence was illegal.

PT Kallista Alam appealed and, in May this year, the Banda Aceh Administrative Court ruled in the company’s favour and overturned the revoking of the permit, saying that it was not legally binding because the court decision was being challenged in the Supreme Court.

PT Kallista Alam’s Supreme Court appeal has since been rejected in a ruling that supersedes that of the Banda Aceh court.

The company has denied causing any environmental destruction or pollution and stated that it “never conducted clearing by burning”.

Up to 100 orangutans are thought to have perished in forest clearing and peat burning in Tripa, and experts say they are now close to being exterminated in the area.

Conversion of the Tripa 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.

Greenhouse effect

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 greenhouse gas emissions every year.

According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion.

The international demand for palm oil is massive. According to the WWF, about half the packaged food now found in supermarkets contains palm oil. It is present in all kinds of produce ranging from biscuits and peanut butter to chocolate and ice cream; it’s in all kinds of ready meals and breakfast cereals, and in shampoo, cosmetics, shaving cream, soap, and industrial lubricants.

Palm oil is now also being used to make biofuel, the production of which actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.

As recently as the 1960s, 82 percent of Indonesia was covered with tropical rainforests, but the country now has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world.

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 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”.

Close to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia’s oil palm plantations already cover some nine million hectares and there are projections that 26 million hectares of the country could be covered by palm oil plantations by 2025.

According to a report published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), palm oil plantations are currently the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

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