Concerned citizens have launched a civil lawsuit against Indonesia’s minister of home affairs in a bid to protect the 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.
It includes the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is listed as a World Heritage Site.
The class action plaintiffs are demanding a cancellation of the current spatial plan for Aceh and “a thorough and comprehensive revision” of its proposals, which they say must include the recognition of the Ecosytem’s special status.
The new spatial plan for Aceh would open up swathes of the Ecosystem for roads, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions. It threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity and increase the risk of flooding and landslides.
There has already been extensive illegal burning of land in the area and there is large-scale encroachment for illegal logging and plantations. Environmentalists say the new spatial plan would effectively dissolve protection of much of Aceh’s remaining tropical rainforest.
The class-action lawsuit is the latest development in a two-year fight by an alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – against the spatial plan.
One of the plaintiffs, Farwiza Farhan, says the plan will “whitewash crimes of the past, and pave the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction”.
Nine plaintiffs from across Aceh travelled to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to register the case against the home affairs minister for “failing to act on his jurisdiction to cancel the Aceh spatial plan” as required under the ministry’s decree Nº 650-441 of 2014.
Millions of people depend upon Aceh’s forests, and the Leuser Ecosystem in particular, they say.
Protection of the Ecosystem is required under several of Indonesia’s national laws, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has ranked it as one of the world’s most irreplaceable protected areas.
The class-action plantiff from Aceh Utara, Dahlan M. Isa, said: “The countless ecosystem services the Leuser Ecosystem provides serve as an irreplaceable life-support system for the people of Aceh and North Sumatra, providing clean water supplies for people, agriculture, fisheries, and other industries.”
Water in the Gunung National Park has already been badly polluted by palm oil companies.
Farwiza says the proposed spatial plan makes no mention of the existence of the Leuser Ecosystem as a National Strategic Area and no reference to its role in environmental protection.
“It effectively legalises numerous new roads, many of which have already been constructed illegally and cut through vast areas of forest, fragmenting this sensitive ecosystem and opening up new pathways for destruction.”
Sustainable development for Aceh is impossible if its forests are destroyed, Farwiza says.
Dahlan says the Leuser Ecosystem is vital for water regulation and for preventing flash floods and landslides. “These environmental catastrophes already kill people, devastate crops and infrastructure, and destroy livelihoods all too often in Aceh.”
The plaintiff from Gayo Lues, Abu Kari, said: “Our government has lost the ancestral wisdom of how to manage lands, forests, and water. Unfortunately, the implications are that one person signing a piece of paper could sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of many others.”
The lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Nurul Ikhsan, says the Aceh government cannot contest the inclusion of the Leuser Ecosystem in its spatial plan because it exists as a protected area under three laws: Nº 11/2006 on Aceh governance, Nº 26/2007 on spatial planning, and its derivative, Government Regulation 26/2008 on the National Spatial Plan.
“It would be wise for the Aceh government to immediately work together with relevant parties, especially Aceh’s indigenous communities, to conduct a thorough and comprehensive revision of the Aceh spatial plan so that this prolonged debate can finally be ended,” she added.
In its review of the spatial plan, the home affairs ministry found numerous legal infringements that need to be resolved before it can be accepted, Nurul says.
Under Indonesian law, the Aceh government is required to revise the regulation and, in the absence of revisions, the home affairs minister must formally reject the provincial law Qanun 19/2013, which covers the plan.
“This case is clear cut,” Nurul Ikhsan said. “We want the minister of home affairs to uphold his own legal authority to cancel the Aceh spatial plan as required under Decree 650-441, and for the Aceh government and the Aceh parliament to revise the plan by including protection of the Leuser Ecosystem.
“If the minister of home affairs, the governor of Aceh, and the Aceh parliament do not do this, they are clearly acting unlawfully.”
A bulldozer moves earth within the Leuser Ecosystem.
In its most recent report about Leuser, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) 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”.
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 also called on the Indonesian government to uphold Indonesia’s national laws and reject the new spatial plan. Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, should work with indigenous peoples and other local communities to protect the Ecosystem and restore its natural forests and peatlands, RAN says.
Threats include species extinctions
The founder and director of the Orangutan Information Centre in the Sumatran city of Medan, Panut Hadisiswoyo (pictured left), 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.”
Rescue in March 2014 of a young male orangutan isolated on farmland in Langkat, North Sumatra.
The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, Ian Singleton, says the Leuser Ecosystem is home to about 85 per cent of all wild Sumatran orangutans.
The new RAN report states: “It is clear that the Sumatran orangutan is in rapid decline, 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.
The alliance’s report “Leuser at a Crossroads” states that 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 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.
Data analysis by an orangutan conservation charity shows a dramatic loss of forest cover in the Leuser Ecosystem.
The UK-based Sumatran Orangutan Society (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.
Palm oil investigation
RAN teamed up with Racing Extinction, Wildlife Asia, and the Oceanic Preservation Society to launch a crowdfunding campaign called “Racing Extinction in the Leuser Ecosystem”. They succeeded in raising more than their 50,000 US$ target to fund “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”.
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.
Headline photo by Paul Hilton.