The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has voted unanimously to keep the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS) on the List of World Heritage In Danger.
At its 41st session, taking place this week in Kraków, Poland, the committee heard submissions from the Indonesian government and from the founder and director of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (IOC), Panut Hadisiswoyo.
Welcoming the vote, Hadisiswoyo said: “The World Heritage Committee has confirmed the need to take decisive action to address current and emerging threats facing world heritage rainforests in Sumatra.
“We are very appreciative that the committee has retained the Tropical Rainforest Heritage Sumatra site on the List of World Heritage In Danger as destruction driven by illegal activities continues to this day.”
Hadisiswoyo (pictured left) also welcomed an announcement by the Indonesian government that it will not allow a proposed geothermal project to go ahead within the TRHS.
“The Indonesian government’s announcement, categorically ruling out geothermal development within the world heritage property, is welcomed.
“We stand ready to work collaboratively to protect the property’s rainforests and realise alternative development that protects the greater Leuser Ecosystem whilst securing the integrity of the TRHS World Heritage Site.”
A Turkish company, Hitay Holdings, wanted to build a geothermal plant in the Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP).
The site the company had targeted was 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 GLNP.
Logging, poaching, and palm oil
The TRHS was nominated as a World Heritage Site by the Indonesian government, and was accepted onto the heritage list in 2004.
The site has been on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 2011 because of the ongoing destruction of its ecosystem. This has included illegal logging, wildlife poaching, oil palm expansion, and fragmentation of the rainforest for new roads.
There have also been proposals for three large hydroelectric dams on the site.
A large part of the TRHS 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.
Hadisiswoyo says that, while local NGOs are ready to work with the Indonesian government to conserve the TRSH, they want to see proper law enforcement to tackle the unacceptable levels of illegal logging, poaching, and encroachment.
Like the Indonesian government, he says, the NGOs are committed to seeing the TRSH come off the danger list, “but not until all the threats it faces have been addressed”.
The TRSH could only be removed from the danger list “when the clear and present danger to the Outstanding Universal Value of the TRHS has been removed and current destruction has been reversed”, Hadisiswoyo told committee members.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with the government to address these threats, but there is only so much that we as NGOs can do. It is the government that is responsible for proper law enforcement, including the prosecution of offenders. It is the government that is responsible for stopping new roads, industrial developments, and encroachment.”
Hadisiswoyo added later: “We commend both the Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry and Governor Irwandi Yusuf of the Aceh provincial government, who now have made unequivocal statements ruling out geothermal proposals in the heart of Leuser, but we still have much work to do to reverse the damage that has already been done and block any attempts at building any new roads or hydrodams in the Leuser Ecosystem.”
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In its January 2017 report to the World Heritage Committee, 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.
In the report they submitted to the World Heritage Committee, the Indonesian NGOs highlighted 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 World Heritage Committee documents an increase in the number of patrols, the “arrest” rate is three percent and the prosecution rate unknown.
This week, Hadisiswoyo delivered petitions to the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee on behalf of 14,000 concerned global citizens who are part of the growing movement to “Love The Leuser”.
In his speech to the committee, he called on the glocal community to join the NGOs and support the Indonesian government to protect and restore the TRHS and the Leuser Ecosystem.
An additional threat to the Leuser Ecosystem is the new spatial plan for Aceh, which would open up swathes of the Ecosystem for roads, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions and threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity and increase the risk of flooding and landslides.
An alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – has been battling for more than two years against the proposed plan.
GeRAM says the Aceh governor and the Aceh parliament wrongfully excluded the Leuser Ecosystem from the spatial plan.
The chairwoman of the NGO Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA), Farwiza Farhan, says the spatial plan will “whitewash crimes of the past and pave the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction”.
Millions of people in Aceh and North Sumatra depend on the rivers of the Leuser Ecosystem, not only for fresh drinking water, but also to sustain their livelihoods as farmers.
Plantiffs in a class action against the spatial plan are demanding its cancellation and “a thorough and comprehensive revision” of its proposals, which they say must include the recognition of the Leuser Ecosytem’s special status.
Report to the World Heritage Committee, June 2017: Tropical Rainforests of Sumatra: Still In Danger.
The World Heritage Committee meets once a year, and consists of representatives from 21 State Parties to the World Heritage Convention.
The committee is responsible for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, defines the use of the World Heritage Fund, and allocates financial assistance upon requests from State Parties.
It decides on the inscription of properties on the World Heritage List, examines reports on the state of conservation of inscribed properties, and decides whether properties should remain on the List of World Heritage in Danger or be removed.
Headline photo by Paul Hilton.