Climate conference: environmentalists urge action to end forest destruction in Indonesia

An aerial view of the Leuser Ecosystem, 19th November 2013. Photo: Paul HiltonEnvironmentalists from Indonesia who are in Paris for the COP21 United Nations climate change conference have called for urgent action to end the destruction of their country’s rainforests and peatlands.

They appealed in particular for a lasting solution to protect Sumatra’s precious Leuser Ecosystem – the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild.

The 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.


There has been extensive illegal burning of land in the area and there is large-scale encroachment for illegal logging and plantations. If implemented, the new spatial land use plan for Aceh will cause further destruction in the region, environmentalists say.

“A climate agreement that does not address Indonesia’s spiralling deforestation and fire crises is a set-up for failure,” said the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Lindsey Allen, who joined an international panel of experts meeting on the fringes of COP21 on Monday to discuss the recent fire disaster in Indonesia and the implications for the country’s climate commitments.

The panel, which included representatives from RAN, Racing Extinction, the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), the Sumatra-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), and the “Kids Cut Palm Oil” initiative, called on the international business community to stand strong on their no-deforestation commitments to help the survival of critically endangered species.

“It’s crucial for Indonesia to take bold action at all levels of government to interrupt this tragic cycle of destruction,” Allen said, “but Indonesia cannot do this alone.

“We are working with major global brands that use palm oil to end plantation development on peatlands and in rainforests and protect the extraordinary Leuser Ecosystem while securing economic opportunities for local communities.”

RAN has just released a new report about the Leuser Ecosytem that says “the current rush to destroy its last lowland rainforests and peatlands would enrich a few companies quickly, but would impoverish many local communities for decades to come”.

The new spatial plan for Aceh, which would open up swathes of the Leuser Ecosystem for roads, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions, threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity and increase the risk of flooding and landslides.

It is crucial, RAN states, that the Leuser Ecosystem is protected from destructive industries, including the expansion of oil palm and pulp plantations, logging, mining and new roads and infrastructure projects.

“The Leuser Ecosystem is a rare and thriving tropical ecosystem that is critical to future generations, both within Indonesia and internationally,” RAN states.

Destroying the Ecosystem, RAN says, would rob future generations of the chance to maintain and develop sustainable, forest-based livelihoods.

“Continued loss of the intact forests and peatlands of the Leuser Ecosystem would also fuel the global climate crisis as well as spell extinction for many of the iconic species that call it home. We still have a chance to stop this destruction and save the extensive forests of the Leuser Ecosystem. The choice between a future with, or a future without, the Leuser Ecosystem is being made now.”

RAN has called on the Indonesian government to uphold Indonesia’s national laws and reject the new spatial plan for Aceh. Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, should work with indigenous peoples and other local communities to protect the Leuser Ecosystem and restore its natural forests and peatlands, RAN says.

“Now is the time for all actors to come together to develop a lasting solution for Aceh that protects and restores its most valuable natural asset, the Leuser Ecosystem; secures peace and livelihoods; and creates new economic opportunities for local communities.”

The founder and director of the OIC, Panut Hadisiswoyo, who participated in Mondays’s panel discussion, says the Leuser Ecosystem is one of the most important tropical forests in the world. Industrial palm oil expansion is the biggest threat to the survival of the wildlife in the Ecosystem, he says, and is also a threat to the millions of people who depend on the Ecosystem for their livelihoods and clean water and food.

“Every day I witness the destruction. If we lose the Leuser Ecosystem to industrial development, we won’t only pollute our global atmosphere, we will almost certainly doom the Sumatran orangutan to extinction.”

The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, says the Leuser Ecosystem is home to about 85 per cent of all wild Sumatran orangutans.

“It is clear that the Sumatran orangutan is in rapid decline,” the new RAN report states, “and if the lowland forests and peatlands of the Leuser Ecosystem are destroyed, scientists warn that it may become the first great ape species to go extinct in the wild.

“This is a legacy our generation cannot afford to leave behind.”



Photos by Suzi Eszterhas.

The Leuser Ecosystem Alliance¹ says the Ecosystem supports the lives and livelihoods of more than four million people, and protects them from environmental disasters.

In Paris, the alliance launched a report entitled “Leuser at a Crossroads”, which states that the natural forests of Leuser are still being cleared, and the integrity of the ecosystem is at risk of collapsing. “If decisive action is not taken immediately the impacts on the entire ecosystem and the surrounding population will be disastrous and irreversible,” the report states.

The alliance says that, if action is not taken, forest loss will lead to species extinctions and soil degradation, ultimately making forest restoration impossible, and large amounts of stored carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

There would be further drying out of peat swamps, releasing yet more carbon and leading to persistent fires and haze, and potentially causing large areas to be contaminated by sea water.

Watershed functions would be lost leading to declining agricultural productivity and fish stocks because of an erratic water supply, and to an increased incidence of flooding, drought, landslides, and fires.

Forest preservation values resulting from tourism, carbon trading, and low-level local utilisation would also be lost.

The alliance calls for several key actions to be taken without delay. It says the “illegally enacted” spatial plan for Aceh should be officially revoked and replaced with a sustainable development plan for the area that respects the Leuser Ecosystem’s National Strategic Area status.

Law enforcement efforts need to be maintained and enhanced to end illegal land clearance, the report adds, and responsible development and income generation need to be promoted, especially in the case of income potential from tourism and carbon trading.

A global disaster

In recent months, vast areas of Indonesian forest land have been destroyed and people and animals have died in what has been described as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”.

It’s estimated that about 600,000 hectares of the land burned was peatland.

About half a million people have suffered from respiratory illnesses because of the fires, which threatened the last remaining populations of orangutans in the world. Choking pollution blanketed whole regions of Southeast Asia for months and pollution levels reached a staggering 3,600 on the Pollutant Standard Index in Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. (Above 300 is already considered hazardous.)


Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, in September this year. Photo by Bjorn Vaughn.

The drying out of peatlands is a main cause of the forest fires in Indonesia. Once dried out, the peat is extremely inflammable. The fires burn underground and are very hard to extinguish.

The founder of GRASP, Ian Redmond, said on Monday: “As world leaders gather in Paris to prepare action plans to reduce carbon emissions, one cannot ignore the globally significant disaster that is taking place in Indonesia.”

At least two million hectares of land burned in the recent fires, releasing millions of tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, Redmond said.

“The added burden on the global environment is huge, and it is also delivering a devastating blow to Indonesia’s biodiversity, much of which is already on the edge of extinction.  It is essential that the world helps Indonesia to prevent future fires by blocking the drainage canals in peat swamps, which are lowering the water-table. Wet peat does not burn.”

Emissions from this year’s fires in Indonesia are estimated to have reached 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2 – moving Indonesia from being the sixth largest emitter in the world up to the fourth largest in just six weeks.

Researchers estimate that, on many days in September and October, the CO2 emissions from the fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States.

Fire burning at the edge of the Sabangau forest

The Sabangau forest in Central Kalimantan.

An opportunity for action

RAN says the COP21 presents an opportunity for Jokowi to appeal to the global community to support his country in its efforts to protect critical rainforests and peatlands across Indonesia.

In the wake of this year’s fires disaster, the president pledged to ban the conversion of carbon-rich peatlands to oil palm plantations, RAN points out.

“However, concurrent moves within the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to establish the new Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries threatens to undermine recent progress in breaking the link between oil palm development and deforestation, by pressuring companies to drop their zero-deforestation commitments.”

Companies standing strong on their no-deforestation commitments will mean the difference between survival and extinction for critically endangered species including the Sumatran orangutan, elephant, tiger and rhino, RAN says.

Jokowi said in November that he had instructed Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, not to grant any new permits on peatland. He has not, however, signed an official decree to this effect.

The president also said there needed to be a review of concessions already granted, particularly on peatland.

Environmentalists hoped Jokowi would make a strong announcement in Paris about protecting Indonesia’s forests, but, as yet, he hasn’t.

“As a country with one of the largest forest areas acting as the lungs of the world, Indonesia is here today as part of the solution,” Jokowi told the conference. “My government is developing Indonesia in a way that is giving due attention to the environment.”

Jokowi said Indonesia would seek to reduce emissions by 29 percent by 2030 by diverting fuel subsidies to productive sectors, increasing the use of renewable energy sources to 23 percent of national energy consumption by 2025, and processing waste into energy sources.

Writing in Singapore’s Straits Times, David Fogarty said Jokowi spoke about the recent fires and said the government had strict law enforcement measures. He also pointed to prevention efforts and mentioned the recent establishment of a peat restoration agency and existing climate commitments.

“But he didn’t announce that he had signed a much-awaited presidential instruction on peatlands and fires that would be binding on all citizens and companies. That instruction would be the strongest sign of his government’s strong intent to tackle the causes of the fires, as demanded by Indonesians and their neighbouring countries.”

Non-governmental organisations had expected Jokowi to sign the new regulation in the run-up to Paris, Fogarty wrote. He may issue the instruction in coming days, Fogarty added, “but he missed a chance in Paris to really put Indonesia and its climate change efforts on the world map”.

Indonesia says it needs 50 trillion rupiah (about 3.6 billion US$) to restore and protect its peatlands. It is seeking up to 1 billion US$ from Norway along with funding from the United States, Britain, and the World Bank for a peat restoration body.

Jokowi held meetings with leaders from Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, and India in Paris on Monday.

“To reach a Paris deal, all parties, I repeat, all parties have to contribute more in mitigation and adaptation actions, in particular developed countries,” he said in a speech. “An El Niño that was hot and dry has made the effort of mitigation very difficult, but it can be resolved.”

Raising awareness

Monday’s Asia Wildfire Panel discussions in Paris took place on “Kids Cut Palm Oil” day, during which an international group of school students from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the United States raised awareness about conflict palm oil.

“Today, youth activists in schools around the world are taking action to cut conflict palm oil from our lives,” said Elle O’Brien from GS Green Generation, a group of student activists from the Green School in Bali, Indonesia.

“Kids Cut Palm Oil is an international group of school students who want to see an end to the destruction of our forests. We want this destruction to stop killing critically endangered animals. We want the destruction to stop because it is killing people, and leading to tremendous global carbon emissions that have never been seen before on this scale.

“We know how to stop it. We can stop it. And we will stop it. We can challenge this by becoming educated on the issue and boycotting products containing conflict palm oil.”

In another environmental initiative, Racing Extinction has teamed up with Wildlife Asia, the Oceanic Preservation Society, and RAN to launch a crowdfunding campaign called “Racing Extinction in the Leuser Ecosystem” to raise funds for “a mission to expose those who are destroying the Ecosystem, and driving the extinction of endangered species”.

The team of “investigators, communicators, videographers and corporate campaigners” plan to follow palm oil supply chains so as to expose the connections between forest destruction and the “irresponsible practices of brands that use conflict palm oil in their products stocked in our supermarkets”.

Carbon emissions

At a recent public lecture in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Dr. Sunaryo from the country’s Research Centre for Climate Change, said: Indonesia has the most to lose if we cannot address our recurring fire and haze problem. We’re destroying our resources and jeopardising the health of our people and our economy. But at the same time, we also have the most to gain if we can solve this, and reduce Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions in the process.”

Unlike the other big carbon polluting nations, whose emissions are mostly from fossil fuel burning, most of Indonesia’s emissions are from the utilisation and degradation of its forests and peatlands, Sunaryo says.

“Indonesia could lead the world in carbon sequestration, and reap serious economic benefits, but this will only be possible if we take our responsibilities far more seriously, and really sustainably utilise, protect, and restore our forests and peatlands.

“Whilst some people, somewhere, are lining their pockets through unsustainable use of Indonesia’s forests, the resulting fires and haze that incinerate the land, and our wildlife in the process, and the massive contribution we are making to global climate change are a huge source of embarrassment to the rest of us.

“We need clear, decisive action now. We need the government to implement effective policies to reduce emissions, including a single country-wide map of land use.”

There needed to be dramatically improved spatial planning at all levels, and the law had to be enforced, Sunaryo added.

T.M. Zulkifar, from the non-profit organisation Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (the Foundation for Sustainable Ecosystems, or YEL) says Aceh’s forests are some of the most pristine and important in all of Indonesia, “indeed in the world”.

The Leuser Ecosystem, he says, is a National Strategic Area and must be protected under national law. “Its inclusion at all levels of spatial planning is legally mandatory and yet it is not even mentioned in Aceh’s spatial plan.

“The people of Aceh know better than anyone how susceptible the province is to massive flash floods, that kill dozens if not hundreds of people each year, and devastate local economies.”

A 2007 World Bank Report concluded that just twenty days of flooding in 2006 cost Aceh more than 200 million US$.


palm tripa burning

Tripa burning in 2012. Photo by Carlos Quiles.

Environmentalists celebrated a major victory in September when Indonesia’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal brought by the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam against a judgment that it illegally burned huge swathes of the environmentally precious Tripa peat swamp, which lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, and should pay billions of rupiah in compensation.

The Supreme Court ruling upheld the civil judgment made in January, 2014, at the Meulaboh district court in Aceh, where the judges ordered Kallista Alam to pay 114.3 billion rupiah (at that time nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (then close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the 1,000 hectares of forest affected.

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

In July last year, 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 (then 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 (then about 256,000 US$) or a further five months in prison.

In another case, in October last year, the estate manager of the palm oil company PT Dua Perkasa Lestari, Mujiluddin, was found guilty of illegal burning, and was sentenced to three years in prison and a three billion rupiah fine. Appeals are ongoing.

Similar prosecutions are underway against three other companies operating in the Tripa peat forest.

Farwiza Farhan from the organisation Hutan Alam dan Lingkungan Aceh (Forest, Nature, and Environment of Aceh or HAkA) says that, despite the legal successes in Tripa, the integrity of the Leuser Ecosystem remains seriously threatened because of its complete omission from the current spatial plan for Aceh.

“Many areas are already clear-felled or degraded, often by palm oil companies, but also because of the numerous roads that fragment huge tracts of Leuser’s forests and open up new access.”

Whilst much of Indonesia has been suffering from fires, Aceh is bracing itself for a wave of severe flooding, Farwiza said.

“These floods regularly wipe out entire towns and devastate agricultural investments,” she added. “The loss of Aceh’s forests is escalating human-wildlife conflicts, too, as evidenced by the number of elephant killings so far this year.”

After the Supreme Court win, citizens in Aceh said they would launch a class-action lawsuit against the Indonesian government for its failure to ensure the protection of the Leuser Ecosystem.

The UK-based Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) said: “An alliance of concerned citizens will take the minister of home affairs to court over his failure to cancel the disastrous Aceh spatial plan and enforce national conservation laws.”

Data analysis by the SOS shows a dramatic loss of forest cover in the Leuser Ecosystem.

The SOS compared the period from the start of 2008 to the end of 2012 with the previous five years and found that forest loss in the Ecosystem had more than doubled. At least 30,830 hectares of forest were lost over the first period, and 80,316 hectares over the second.

Over the entire ten-year period from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2012, an area the size of Hong Kong was lost, the society says.

Roni's pic 2011-12-21T084224Z_01_JAK01_RTRIDSP_3_INDONESIA

Photo by Roni Bintang.

Palm oil supply chains

In its first report highlighting the threats to the Leuser Ecosystem, released in November 2014, RAN said the area was an “epicenter of palm oil plantation expansion” and, combined with unchecked mining, logging, industrial pulp plantations and poaching in the region, was facing “a perfect storm of destruction”.

A year later, it says, “rainforests continue to fall, peatlands continue to be drained, conflicts remain between companies and communities, and the ongoing legal protections for the Leuser Ecosystem remain under threat”.

RAN says that recent field investigations have revealed ongoing destruction of the most valuable remaining lowland rainforests and peatlands for conflict palm oil. “From the scale of ongoing destruction in these critical areas, it is clear that, if more collective action is not taken now, we risk losing the Leuser Ecosystem forever.”

In its new report, “The Last Place on Earth: tracking progress and new opportunities to protect the Leuser Ecosystem”, RAN says the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) companies must work with suppliers and government to establish a moratorium on the destruction of rainforests and peatlands in the Leuser Ecosystem. “To achieve this, the Big Three buyers and the other IPOP companies need to scale up incentives and support to their suppliers.”

Banks and investors need to ensure that they are not financing conflict palm oil or the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem, RAN adds.

Oil palm growers must ensure that any palm oil they produce meets responsible palm oil production requirements, RAN says. Palm oil traders, it says, must only source palm oil from third-party suppliers whose entire operations are verified as compliant with responsible palm oil requirements.

“Consumer goods manufacturing companies need to ensure they are not sourcing conflict palm oil or contributing to the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.”


Panut Hadisiswoyo and his team are involved in reforesting areas of the Leuser Ecosytem that were illegally cleared for oil palm plantations. The OIC is also involved in drone monitoring of the area.

Since the OIC’s forest restoration project began in 2007, the team has reclaimed about 500 hectares of land that was illegally planted by palm oil companies. More than 10,000 illegal oil palms have been removed.

The OIC team is now securing a new 200-hectare area in the Langkat district, where there is still illegal cultivation.

Since 1990, more than 22,000 hectares of forest have been encroached in the Langkat area alone, mostly for oil palms. More than 400 families are involved in encroachment in the Gunung Leuser National Park. The first step is illegal logging, then the land is illegally planted with oil palms or rubber trees.

It is astonishing how quickly the OIC has managed to create a thriving forest that is again becoming home to native species.

It is not just orangutans who are returning to the restored forest; elephants, sun bears, gibbons and other animals – and birds – are also being attracted back. “The elephants have often destroyed our trees and thousands of our seedlings, but we are nevertheless very happy that they are coming back,” Hadisiswoyo said.

Since the restoration project began, the OIC has planted about one million seedlings.

Members of the local community are very proud of the success of the project, Hadisiswoyo says, and have formed a group called “Protectors of Leuser” to assist in the restoration and forest protection work.

What environmentalists in Paris are calling for is government and private sector action to support what they are doing on the ground, and prevent an already critical situation tipping over into total catastrophe.

RAN stated in its most recent report: “The commitments made by private sector actors and governments in Indonesia to combat deforestation and peatland development must be tested, and lasting partnerships between governments, private sector actors, civil society, and communities must be formed to chart a different development model and catalyse real and lasting change.”

1) The Leuser Ecosystem Alliance is comprised of Forum Konservasi Leuser, Hutan Alam dan Lingkungan Aceh, the Orangutan Information Centre, the PanEco Foundation, the Sumatran Orangutan Society, and Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari.

RAN report

Leuser at a Crossroads

Racing Extinction crowdfunding campaign



Headline photo of the Leuser Ecosystem by Paul Hilton.