UNESCO committee keeps Sumatran rainforest on List of World Heritage In Danger

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee¹ has again voted to keep the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS) in Indonesia on the List of World Heritage In Danger.

At its 42nd session, taking place in Bahrain, the committee also detailed new measures that it says need to be taken to address the problems of poaching, illegal logging, encroachment, and road expansion in Sumatra’s world heritage rainforests.

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.

The heritage committee said that the Indonesian government had made significant progress in addressing the threats facing the TRHS, but this was not yet sufficient for its removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger.

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 TRHS 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.

“Of the mammal species, 22 are Asian, not found elsewhere in the archipelago, and 15 are confined to the Indonesian region, including the endemic Sumatran orangutan. The site also provides biogeographic evidence of the evolution of the island.”

The director of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), Panut Hadisiswoyo, said he welcomed the heritage committee’s decision to keep the TRHS on the in-danger list and the new protection measures it requires the Indonesian government to implement.

“Indonesia is a member of the World Heritage Committee”, Hadisiswoyo said. “We appreciate the government’s support for the strong measures adopted today in Bahrain.”

A bulldozer moves earth within the Leuser Ecosystem.

Hadisiswoyo (pictured left) said the committee’s decision confirmed the importance of the Leuser Ecosystem in maintaining the Outstanding Universal Value of Sumatra’s rainforests and wildlife habitat.

“The committee has called for environmental impact assessments of roads and dams, particularly inside the Leuser Ecosystem, including an evaluation of how such projects would affect world heritage attributes,” he added.

“This means that the government must take seriously the impacts of dams and roads on elephant migration corridors and on orangutan habitat.”

The committee said buffer zones around the world heritage property must be managed properly so that critical lowland rainforests and the habitats of orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants are protected.

It also said it would like to see the TRHS boundaries modified so that they better reflect the Outstanding Universal Value of the area.

“Such a boundary modification of the world heritage area would, of necessity, incorporate all of the Leuser Ecosystem’s rainforests into that area,” Hadisiswoyo said.

“We look forward to further collaboration with the government of Indonesia to ensure the world heritage values of the Leuser Ecosystem can be fully protected.”

In February this year, the Indonesian government submitted a report on the state of conservation of the TRHS to the heritage committee. It stated that law enforcement and Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) patrols had been further strengthened, with 23 poachers arrested in 2017. Also “Role Model” forest restoration sites had been initiated inside the TRHS “to address conservation issues including encroachment and to enhance partnership”.

The government also said that key species (the Sumatran tiger, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans) were being monitored in small study areas in the national parks in collaboration with conservation partners.

“Incidences of human-wildlife conflicts are also being mapped by park managers jointly with partners and communities.”

Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, © Marc Patry.

The heritage committee said it welcomed the Indonesian government’s cancellation of the proposed geothermal project on the Kappi Plateau in the Gunung Leuser National Park and the fact that no other plans existed for geothermal development within the TRHS.

It also welcomed the six-month extensions to the moratoria on new oil palm plantations and mining issued by the governor of Aceh in December 2017, and strongly urged Indonesia to extend these moratoria further “to ensure that important wildlife habitats and corridors in the Leuser Ecosystem are protected against these damaging developments”.

It noted Indonesia’s “continued progress” in increasing patrols and law enforcement efforts in the TRHS, but also expressed its “significant concern” about the substantial, ongoing forest loss that was occurring primarily as a result of encroachment and strongly urged Indonesia “to take urgent action to halt the current trend and rehabilitate degraded areas”.

The committee said the Indonesian government needed to further enhance its law enforcement capacity and the geographic reach and intensity of patrols throughout the TRHS in collaboration with conservation NGOs, local communities, and other partners, and should ensure that forest crimes are effectively detected and prosecuted.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sent a reactive monitoring mission to the TRHS in April this year.

The World Heritage Centre and advisory bodies said: “Whilst the initiation of the small-scale ‘Role Model’ pilot sites is a positive step towards forest restoration, the mission observed substantial, ongoing encroachment, which will require considerably more effort to bring under control and to rehabilitate those degraded areas.

“Encroachment also appears to be occurring most in lowland forests, which are particularly important habitats for key wildlife, as well as in ecological corridors thereby leading to fragmentation of the property.”


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The monitoring of key wildlife species in study areas was appreciated, the World Heritage Centre and advisory bodies said, but there was still no systematic data collection across the three national parks.

“There is a requirement for coordination at the property level for consistent monitoring methods using replicable protocols. Land use pressures on the property, especially in the lowlands, are threatening wildlife habitats and there is a need to ensure the protection of ecological corridors adjoining the property.”

The heritage committee says the Indonesian government needs to strengthen efforts to remove all encroachers from the TRHS and carry out necessary forest restoration work to ensure that encroachment does not recur.

Forest restoration, the committee says, needs to be focused initially on degraded areas in key ecological corridors and along roads, paths and tracks that traverse the TRHS, and key restored wildlife corridors should be designated as a core zone.

It adds that any historical land rights claims within the TRHS need to be reviewed and resolved.

The Indonesian government is also being asked to assess the full potential impact of invasive species on the Outstanding Universal Value of the TRHS, and examine possible control methods.

In its description of the Outstanding Universal Value of the TRHS, UNESCO points out that it is home to the highest volcano in Indonesia, Gunung Kerinci, “along with many other physical features of exceptional natural beauty, including Lake Gunung Tujuh, the highest lake in Southeast Asia, numerous other volcanic and glacial high-altitude lakes, fumaroles², waterfalls, cave systems, and steep rocky backdrops”.

Both the Gunung Leuser and Bukit Barisan Selatan national parks contain frontages to the Indian Ocean, UNESCO points out, and this makes the altitudinal range of the TRHS extend from the highest mountains on Sumatra to sea level.

“All three protected areas in the TRHS exhibit wide altitudinal zonation of vegetation, from lowland rainforest to montane forest, extending to sub-alpine low forest, scrub, and shrub thickets and covering an astounding diversity of ecosystems.”

Spatial plan

In its report to the heritage committee, the Indonesian government said the government of Aceh was “exploring the possibility” of including the Leuser Ecosystem in the Aceh Spatial Plan.

Indonesia says it is is committed to ensuring that the spatial plan will not have any negative impact on the TRHS and key areas of the Leuser Ecosystem.

An alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – has been battling for years against the spatial plan, which would open up swathes of forest 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.

GeRAM demands “a thorough and comprehensive revision” of the plan, which, they say, must include the recognition of the Leuser Ecosytem’s special status.

A panel of state court judges in Jakarta said in November 2016 that the Leuser Ecosystem was already included in the spatial plan in the form of protected areas so did not need to be explicitly named.

The coordinating lawyer for GeRAM, Nurul Ikhsan, argued, however, that the Ecosystem was more than a collection of protected areas and had been granted special status as a National Strategic Area for its environmental function.

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”.

Farwiza said that HAkA appreciated the stand taken by the heritage committee. “The TRHS is indeed still facing serious threats and should remain on the in-danger list until sufficient steps have been taken to protect the area.”

Water in the Gunung National Park has already been badly polluted by palm oil companies.

  1. 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.

2. A fumarole is a vent in the Earth’s surface through which steam and volcanic gases are emitted.


The headline photo of the Leuser Ecosytem was taken by Paul Hilton in November 2013.