Environmental activists are calling on the Indonesian Home Affairs Minister to halt plans to open up large areas of protected forests in Sumatra for road building, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions.
If the plan goes through, it will cause untold damage to the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans can be found living together in the wild.
On December 27, the Aceh parliament passed a new spatial plan for Aceh and issued a new Provincial Government Regulation, known locally as the Qanun RTRW Aceh.
According to local media reports, the draft plan has now been submitted to the home affairs ministry for review.
HAkA (Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh), Walhi Aceh, WWF Aceh, and several other local NGOs have written to the home affairs ministry, calling on the minister, Gamawan Fauzi, to reject or at very least review the Qanun RTRWA.
“National laws protecting the Leuser Ecosystem must be upheld and clearly incorporated within the RTRWA,” said a spokesperson for HAkA.
“Requests have been sent for an audience with the Minister for Home Affairs to clarify our concerns, but we have yet to receive a response.”
Environmentalists are appealing for the Leuser Ecosystem to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Muhammad Nur, chairman of the Aceh branch of Walhi (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), said: “The Qanun completely ignores the protected status of the Leuser Ecosystem; the intention is to open up large areas of protected forests for road building, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions.
“This will, in effect, end Aceh’s chances for long-term sustainable development as it will cause further destruction of critical watersheds, leading to ever more frequent flash floods, landslides, and other environmental disasters.
“The companies lobbying for this new plan, and the Aceh government itself, should be held accountable for all the damage that will ensue.”
Danger to wildlife
The Leuser Ecosystem is a last bastion for the Sumatran orangutan. One of the leading voices against the spatial plan is the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton.
“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.
“In addition to our ongoing campaign to save and restore the Tripa peat swamps, the SOCP is also trying to block the new spatial plan.
“Tripa, which lies within the ecosystem, is one of only three remaining peat swamp forests left containing orangutans in Sumatra and it’s impossible to overstate the importance of protecting every last hectare of each of them.”
“Orangutan densities can reach as high as eight per square kilometre in these areas, compared to an average of around only one or two per square kilometre in dryland forests.
“These peat swamps have justifiably been referred to as the ‘orangutan capital of the world’. The Leuser Ecosystem also offers the only real hope of survival for Sumatra’s other key iconic megafauna: the Sumatran tiger, rhino, and elephant.”
On December 30, HAkA, other local Acehnese NGOs, students, and community representatives from 13 Aceh districts held a demonstration outside the Aceh parliament.
The demonstrators called on Aceh’s parliament to immediately revoke their approval of the draft spatial plan.
Opponents to the plan say that local communities and NGOs have been either excluded or deliberately misled about critical aspects, and its development process.
“No official documents or core data has ever been made available to the public, despite this being legally required under National Spatial planning Law No 26/2007,” said the HAkA spokesperson.
“In addition, previous detailed and comprehensive environmental sensitivity analyses of Aceh’s environment have been largely ignored.
“These analyses consistently warn against the conversion of Aceh’s ecologically highly sensitive forest areas because of the steep and undulating terrain, the nature of the geology, and the paramount importance of its critical watersheds to sustainable long term economic development.
“These analyses predict a dramatic increase in catastrophic environmental disasters that will lead to loss of lives and subsequent damage to local economies.
“They also show that a reforestation policy is the more sensible way forward for Aceh, not more deforestation. Reforestation will both increase long-term economic potential and reduce disaster risk.”
Lives and livelihoods
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”.
It added: “Forest disruption in Aceh’s upland areas will increase the risk of destructive flooding for people living downstream in the coastal lowlands.”
Singleton said: “If approved, this new plan would result in the rapid devastation of most of Aceh’s remaining lowland forests. It will not only seriously impact biodiversity and regional carbon emissions, but 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.”
Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist with the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation, 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.”
Local NGOs believe that the RTRWA has been driven by, and designed to benefit outside parties, including international interests such the Canadian mining company East Asia Minerals, and logging and palm oil companies.
Dedi Ratih, the spatial planning campaigner for Walhi, said the new plan for Aceh was being developed via a highly unhealthy process “in which foreign corporations are intervening and driving local policy”.
He added: “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.”
It is the role of the home affairs ministry to ensure that the provincial spatial plan complies with national law and is in line with other relevant regulations. It has the option of sending the RTRWA back to legislators and can demand further environmental impact analysis.
According to HAkA, the ministry’s evaluation report will be due before January 21.
“The Aceh parliament has unlawfully dismissed Article 150 of the National Law on Aceh Governance No. 11/2006, which obligates Aceh’s government to protect, conserve, and rehabilitate the Leuser Ecosystem and ensure that it is used sustainably,” HAkA said.
“The Leuser Ecosystem has been designated as a National Strategic Area and the law forbids national, provincial and district governments from issuing permits for potentially environmentally damaging forms of land use within it.”
A petition on change.org has already attracted nearly 17,000 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 Rainforest Action Network is 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) has also added its voice to the call for the ecosystem to be given world heritage status.
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.
There are statistics showing that 36,000 hectares of the Leuser 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.