Precious Sumatran peat forest gets landmark protection

IMG_2860Environmentalists in Sumatra are celebrating a major step forward in their battle to save the Tripa peat forest, which is home to one of the highest densities of orangutans in the world, and is also vital for storing carbon.

The peat forest, which is in the province of Aceh, lies within Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans can be found living together in the wild.

At a ceremony on Saturday morning (March 21), the head of Aceh’s forestry department, Husaini Syamaun, formally declared a new 1,455-hectare protected peat area in Tripa.

The ceremony marked the successful conclusion of an Aceh government programme to block 18 illegal drainage canals. The peat forest had been drained by the company PT Kallista Alam to make way for oil palm plantations.

The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, Ian Singleton, described the blocking of the canals and the declaration of the new protected area as a “monumental occasion” not only for Sumatra, but for Indonesia as a whole.

T.M. Zulfikar, from Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (the Indonesian Sustainable Ecosystem Foundation) added: “Many doubted that it could ever happen, that the drainage canals dug by Kallista Alam would ever be blocked and the forests ever restored, but here we stand, community and government working together, proving that it can indeed be done.”

Husaini unveiled a signboard marking the official boundary of the new protected area and symbolically planted a tree on one of the 18 recently constructed dams that are blocking the canals. He said that Aceh’s government was firmly committed to protecting all peat areas deeper than three metres.

More than 60,000 trees have already been planted in the newly protected area, and another 120,000 are due to be planted over the coming month.

IMG_3342Husaini plants a tree in the newly protected area.

Conservation and community activists point, however, to the threats still posed to the Leuser Ecosystem by the new spatial plan for Aceh, which will open up large areas of protected forests for road building, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions.

The Leuser Ecosystem covers 2.6 million hectares and straddles the border of Aceh and the neighbouring province of North Sumatra. It has been listed as one of the world’s most irreplaceable areas.

leuser-mapThe Leuser Ecosystem

Tripa first came to the world’s attention in 2012, when massive illegal fires raged throughout the area, destroying the forest, killing everything in their path, and threatening to extinguish the orangutan population.

“Tripa is one of only three remaining peat swamp forests on the west coast of Aceh that host the highest densities of orangutans anywhere in the world,” said Ian Singleton.

“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.”

Up to 100 orangutans are thought to have perished in the forest clearing and peat burning in Tripa. There were some 2,000 to 3,000 orangutans in the area in the 1990s, but only a few hundred are left today.

The peat swamp was burnt to a cinder by several palm oil companies, one of which – PT Kallista Alam – was fined 114.3 billion rupiah (nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the affected forest.

In the court ruling in January 2014, Kallista Alam was found guilty of illegally burning about 1,000 hectares of the peat forest.

The court also ordered the confiscation of 5,769 hectares of land managed by Kallista Alam and set a 5 million rupiah (about 423 US$) daily fine for each day the company delayed paying the compensation and restoration costs.

The case was brought by the Indonesian environment ministry. Several other cases filed by the environment ministry against other palm oil companies in Tripa are ongoing.

In the burning of Tripa, peat layers 10 to 15 centimetres deep were destroyed and gases triggered by the burning exceeded the permitted Threshold Limit Value.

palm tripa burningTripa burning in June 2012; photo by Carlos Quiles.

The permit to develop a 1,605-hectare oil palm plantation in the heart of Tripa was accorded to Kallista Alam by the then governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, in August 2011. After a large-scale international protest, the Indonesian environment ministry decided to investigate the issuance of the permit. A lengthy court battle ensued.

The director of Kallista Alam, Subianto Rusyid, was found guilty of illegally clearing peat forest, and was sentenced to eight months in jail. The judges also fined him 150 million rupiah (about 13,000 US$), and said he would be imprisoned for a further three months if the fine was not paid.

Kallista Alam’s development manager, Khamidin Yoesoef, was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of three billion rupiah (about 256,000 US$) or a further five months in prison.

Kallista Alam appealed against all three verdicts and the Supreme Court in Jakarta is due to deliver its ruling in the coming weeks.

“With such a clear cut case and the earlier findings against the company, it would be a travesty of justice if this final appeal was somehow now accepted, and those responsible for the illegal destruction of Tripa were suddenly off the hook,” said Kamaruddin, a lawyer who represents the communities in Tripa.

T.M. Zulfikar added: “The successful lawsuit against Kallista Alam set a major and much needed legal precedent in Indonesia, and paved the way for others to stand up against dubious concessions elsewhere in the country.

“The blocking of these canals and the establishment of the new protected peat area represents another historic milestone in the battle to restore and conserve the Leuser Ecosystem, a National Strategic Area protected under national law for its critically important environmental function.”

Husaini Syamaun said: “As the governor has stated, the law must be enforced. That also means that, even though the illegal PT Kallista Alam concession has been withdrawn, other people cannot now claim this land. On the contrary, the court’s decision states very clearly that it must be restored to its former condition.”

IMG_3345Husaini speaking to the press, NGOs, and local people on Saturday.

Rudi Putra from the Leuser Conservation Forum added: “We cannot allow our forests and peatlands to be destroyed in this way. Most of the destruction is purely for quick short-term profits for just a few already extremely wealthy companies and people.

“We’ve had enough of that already. What we want to see is proper long-term management, based on the realities of the environment here, to ensure sustainable long-term economic development that benefits all of Aceh’s people.”

The head of Wetlands International Indonesia, Nyoman Suryadiputra, also welcomed the blocking of the drainage canals. Peat swamp forests were critical in protecting local people from environmental disasters, and they also provided livelihoods, he said. Their destruction and drainage had far-reaching global consequences because of the release of CO² into the atmosphere.

“In natural conditions, peat swamps like Tripa are essentially 80 to 90 percent fresh water. Drainage canals destroy the water regulation function of the swamp, causing flash floods and droughts, seriously jeopardizing biodiversity and community livelihoods.

“Drainage dries the peat itself out, too, making it susceptible to fires and allowing its carbon content to oxidise and escape into the atmosphere. It’s exactly this kind of irresponsible destruction that we have seen throughout Tripa that has led to Indonesia being one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.”

Tripa has been devastated by the palm oil operations there, Singleton says. “Back in the early 1990s, Tripa’s forest covered more than 60,000 hectares and probably harboured more than 3,000 orangutans, not to mention tigers and countless other rare and endangered species, many of which depend entirely on swamp forest habitats for their survival.”

Singleton’s estimate is that only 100 to 200 orangutans now remain in Tripa.  “If we are to have any hope of any orangutans surviving here, we need to do everything we possibly can to reclaim and restore the damaged forests.”

The blocking of the canals and restoration of the former Kallista Alam concession area are major steps forward, he says.  “It’s ironic, however, that, at the same time, the Aceh government’s new spatial plan threatens to open up huge areas of the rest of the Leuser Ecosystem for yet more palm oil and mining concessions, and legalise numerous currently illegal roads that will criss-cross Leuser’s remaining forests.”

The chairman of the Aceh branch of Walhi (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), Muhammad Nur, has said the new spatial plan will 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.

Rudi Putra said on Saturday: “We must applaud Governor Zaini Abdullah and Mr Husaini for supporting the restoration today, but we must also urge them and the government to immediately review this remarkable province’s land use plan and not allow any further destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.

“We thank the millions around the world who have helped to save Aceh, and invite them to stay actively engaged; to keep up the pressure.”

An aerial view of the Leuser Ecosystem, 19th November 2013. Photo: Paul HiltonThe Leuser Ecosystem (photo by Paul Hilton).

Tripa photos courtesy of Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL).

Top picture: canals being blocked inside the former PT Kallista Alam concession in February 2015.