NGOs urge UNESCO to intervene to save rainforest heritage site

A consortium of NGOs is calling on UNESCO to intervene urgently to protect the rainforest World Heritage Site in northern Sumatra in Indonesia.

The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS) site has been on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger’’ since 2011 because of the ongoing destruction of its ecosystem.

A large part of the TRHS site lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of tropical lowland rainforest that straddles the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra and is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified Leuser as one of the world’s “irreplaceable protected areas”. It is home to the densest populations of orangutans anywhere in the world, and plays an important role in mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration.

Given its designation as a National Strategic Area, the Leuser Ecosystem should be protected from development.

The entire TRSH site covers 2.5 million hectares and comprises three national parks: Gunung Leuser, Kerinci Seblat, and Bukit Barisan Selatan.

UNESCO says the site “holds the greatest potential for long-term conservation of the distinctive and diverse biota of Sumatra, including many endangered species”.

The area is home to some 10,000 plant species, including 17 endemic genera; more than 200 mammal species; and about 580 bird species, of which 465 are resident and 21 are endemic, UNESCO states.

The consortium of NGOs this week submitted a report to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) pointing out the threats to the TRHS site.

“A wave of major new industrial projects being fast tracked for development within the Leuser Ecosystem threaten to destroy the integrity of the site,” said Farwiza Farhan, who is the chairwoman of one of the NGOs – Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA).

“And this is despite the fact that they will violate Indonesian laws and make a mockery of the World Heritage Site listing.”

Farwiza Farhan. Photo by Paul Hilton.

The other NGOs are the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), and Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (the Foundation for Sustainable Ecosystems, or YEL).

In their submission, the NGOs are critical of the 2017 report that Indonesia submitted to the WHC about the state of conservation of the TRHS.

The NGOs say Indonesia’s report contains serious omissions and contradictions.

In its January 2017 report to the WHC, the Indonesian government reiterates its commitment “to ensure the sustainability of the TRHS and restore it to such a state that the property may be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger”.

It lists the measures it has taken, which include establishing a programme to increase the population of Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhino, and orangutans; conducting training in wildlife monitoring; improving monitoring equipment; identifying and mapping human-wildlife conflict areas; developing a rhino sanctuary; and conducting Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) patrols.

It also said it was committed to not granting any concessions or permits for geothermal exploration or the construction of new roads within the TRHS site.

However, the NGOs’ report to the WHC highlights numerous immediate and serious threats to Leuser’s forests.

The director of the Medan-based OIC, Panut Hadisiswoyo, (pictured below) said: “They include several new hydropower dams and geothermal energy plants being proposed in critical areas, a continued lack of law enforcement throughout the region, and the devastating construction of new roads that carve up and fragment forests and wildlife populations rendering them increasingly vulnerable to extinction.”

The threats to Leuser have never been so severe, Hadisiswoyo says. “We implore the World Heritage Centre to take urgent steps to prevent all these plans being implemented in Leuser.”

A Turkish-owned company, PT Hitay Panas Energi, has been lobbying the Indonesian government to remove protection from a core zone of the World Heritage Site to allow a geothermal power plant to be built in the heart of the Leuser Ecosystem. Their request was supported by the outgoing governor of Aceh, Zaini Abdullah.

There were elections last month, however, and the new governor-elect of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, has stated publicly that he will cancel the Hitay project.

“We strongly welcome the governor-elect’s move,” said Farwiza Farhan. “But, at the same time, we are alarmed to know that the company is still pushing the national government to overrule this decision by Aceh’s incoming governor.”

Farwiza Farhan says Hitay is holding closed-door meetings with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and its various departments “in an attempt to manipulate Indonesia’s laws and enable the project to go ahead”. There have been several public protests, she says.

“We will not sit by and watch as our forests are sold off to foreign-owned companies and we urge the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to reject any requests to destroy the legally protected Leuser Ecosystem.”

The NGOs say there are also proposals for several large hydroelectric dams inside and around the World Heritage Site “that would considerably undermine its Outstanding Universal Value”.

These include plans for mega hydropower projects in the Kluet, Tampur, and Jambo Aye water catchment areas that would severely threaten the integrity of the Leuser Ecosystem.

“These projects would destroy crucially important areas of habitat for the Sumatran orangutan, which is listed by the IUCN as critically endangered and is on its Red List of Threatened Species,” Hadisiswoyo said.

“Mega power projects like these, in and around the Leuser Ecosystem, are not in the best interests of Aceh’s people either. Such projects lead to dependence on just a few large power plants and devastate entire forested regions.”

The projects require roads and infrastructure, Hadisiswoyo says, and all the construction and industrialisation will lead to more frequent and more intense environmental disasters.

“In contrast, micro hydropower generation schemes have been shown to be far more effective, ecologically sensitive, and sustainable solutions to northern Sumatra’s energy issues.”

Hadisiswoyo says it is insane to even consider building giant hydroelectric plants that store millions of tons of water behind concrete walls in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones, with communities living downstream in the floodplain. “It’s a recipe for even more disasters,” he said.

The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, said: “The Leuser Ecosystem is almost certainly the largest remaining contiguous rainforest ecosystem in the whole of Southeast Asia.

“It’s also the last real hope for the survival of some of the world’s most iconic large mammal species, like the Sumatran tiger, elephant, rhino and orangutan, and many other rare and threatened species, many of which, like these, are endemic to the region and are found nowhere else on the planet.”

It’s ironic, Singleton says, that a precious ecosystem like Leuser, with all its biodiversity, could be obliterated in the name of renewable energy.

“Whilst we genuinely applaud the government’s current move towards renewable energy and away from traditional non-renewable sources, clearly not all renewable energy is sustainable if it means destroying a protected landscape and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”


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The proposed site for the geothermal plant is in the Kappi Plateau region, which is the core of the only remaining major habitat corridor connecting the eastern and western forest areas in the Gunung Leuser National Park.

The area is currently designated as a Core Area (Zona Inti) of the national park. In order for the geothermal project to be legally permissible, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry would have to downgrade the area’s status and designate it a Utilisation Zone (Zona Pemanfataan).

Several critically endangered species depend on the habitat corridor for movement and reproduction.

Photos by Suzi Eszterhas.

Farwiza Farhan says Kappi is the very heart of an ecosystem that is providing vast benefits to Aceh’s people every year, absolutely free, and destroying its heart means beginning to unravel the rest of the ecosystem.

“Why would we needlessly throw away billions of dollars’ worth of services for the sake of a small amount of power for which far better alternatives already exist elsewhere?”

According to a recent European Union study, if Aceh’s forests are fully conserved, their total economic value, in the form of ecosystem services such as water supply and the mitigation of disasters and pests, is more than US$1 billion per year.

The report submitted to the WHC by the NGOs also highlights the ongoing failure of law enforcement in the TRHS site. The NGOs say there has been a failure to prosecute and sentence the perpetrators of poaching, illegal logging, encroachment, and other forest crimes. They say that, although Indonesia’s report to the WHC documents an increase in the number of patrols, the arrest rate is three percent and the prosecution rate is unknown.

The Gunung Leuser National Park

Spatial plan for Aceh

The NGOs also point to threats posed to the Leuser Ecosystem by the proposed spatial plan for Aceh, which seeks to remove the ecosystem’s protected status.

Environmentalist suffered a severe disappointment last November when a panel of judges in Jakarta ruled against a group of nine Aceh citizens who brought a civil lawsuit against Indonesia’s minister of home affairs.

The lawsuit is part of a two-year battle by an alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – against the spatial plan.

The plaintiffs say the home affairs minister has “failed to act on his jurisdiction to cancel the Aceh spatial plan” as required under the ministry’s decree Nº 650-441 of 2014.

They say the Aceh governor and the Aceh parliament wrongfully excluded the Leuser Ecosystem from the plan.

GeRAM is appealing against the Jakarta judgement and the high court will review the case.

Farwiza Farhan say the spatial plan will “whitewash crimes of the past and pave the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction”.

The class action plaintiffs are demanding a cancellation of the plan and “a thorough and comprehensive revision” of its proposals, which they say must include the recognition of the Leuser Ecosytem’s special status.

The new spatial plan 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.

The 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.

Earth-moving operations within the Leuser Ecosystem.

One public figure who has been very active in his defence of Leuser is the actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who visited the ecosystem in March last year, and went to the SOCP quarantine centre north of Medan.

Leonardo DiCaprio (right) with Farwiza Farhan and award-winning environmentalist Rudi Putra. Photo by Paul Hilton for HAkA.

In their report to the WHC, the NGOs urge the UNESCO body to directly question the Indonesian government about the extensive infrastructure development plans in the TRHS along with “its failure to act against the continued threat of the Aceh spatial plan; its lack of a serious species conservation strategy; the continuing lapse of effective conservation law enforcement; and its failure to clarify the size of the Gunung Leuser National Park”.

All of this, the NGOs say, threatens the Outstanding Universal Value and biodiversity of the Gunung Leuser National Park and the TRHS as a whole.

The NGOs urge the Indonesian government not to grant any energy or mining permits, plantation concessions, or permission for any road development or expansion within the heritage site.

They also call on the government and the incoming governor of Aceh to overrule the outgoing Aceh government’s proposed spatial plan and implement a management plan that protects and preserves the Leuser Ecosystem for future generations.

They want the government to publish and implement a proper species conservation strategy “that addresses the future of each of the key species within the TRHS” and enact effective law enforcement measures against all those who threaten the TRHS, sanctioning those found guilty and dissuading further illegal actions.

The NGOs are also calling on the government to maintain its national moratorium on permits for, and the expansion of, oil palm cultivation and mining ventures, to officially apply this moratorium to the entire Leuser Ecosystem, and to prioritise an urgent review of the permits currently in existence within it.

The also urge the government to work with the WHC towards extending the TRHS World Heritage site to encompass the entire Leuser Ecosystem.

They are also calling on the WHC to keep the TRHS on the World Heritage in Danger List until all the issues raised have been resolved across the entire heritage area.

The Leuser Ecosystem. Photo by Paul Hilton.


Headline photo: clearing in the Leuser Ecosystem by the palm oil company PT Indo Sawit Perkasa.