PRESS RELEASE New Protected Peat Area established where controversial Palm Oil Company licence revoked, land seized, and canals now blocked in Aceh’s Leuser Ecosystem.
Sunday, 22nd March, 2015
Historic steps forward for protecting Indonesia’s renowned Leuser Ecosystem, but conservation and community activists warn proposed Aceh land use plan is still illegal and must be revised to avoid further conflicts.
[Banda Aceh] Yesterday morning (21st March 2015), at a historic ceremony in the middle of Sumatra’s Tripa peat swamps, Mr Husaini Syamaun, the Head of the Aceh Forestry Department, formally declared a new 1,455 ha Protected Peat Area in the Tripa peat swamp region of the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia. The ceremony marked the successful conclusion of an Aceh government programme to block 18 illegal canals draining the peat. Mr Husaini unveiled a signboard marking the official boundary of the new protected area and symbolically planted a tree on one of the 18 recently construced dams blocking the canals. Husaini confirmed “Aceh’s Government is firmly committed to protecting all peat areas deeper than 3 metres”.
The event was attended by local government and law enforcement agencies, local community leaders, NGO’s and the press. Community representative, Cut Erlianda, explained, “local people support the government’s initiative to protect Tripa and hope to be actively involved in its management.”
Over 60,000 trees have already been planted in the newly protected area, with another 120,000 scheduled to be planted over the next month.The area declared as a Protected Peat Swamp (Kawasan Lindung Gambut) was previously awarded illegally to the company PT Kallista Alam, as an oil palm concession area, but in a case that garnered global media attention, a high profile legal challenge against the permit by Acehnese environmental group WALHI Aceh (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) was successful, resulting in Aceh’s Governor formally cancelling the concession in 2012.
Today’s clear statement of intent by the Aceh government swings the international spotlight now onto Indonesia’s Supreme Court in Jakarta, which in a few weeks will deliver its ruling on an appeal by PT Kallista Alam and its directors, previously sentenced to 9 month and 3 year prison sentences and ordered to pay approximately USD 33 million in damages in additional cases against the company brought by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment. An earlier appeal against these judgements was already rejected by the High Court in Banda Aceh, leading the company to try one last time with the Supreme Court. “All eyes are now on the Sumpreme Court” explained Kamaruddin, a lawyer representing Tripa’s communities. “With such a clear cut case and the earlier findings against the company, it would be a travesty of justice if this final appeal was somehow now accepted, and those responsible for the illegal destruction of Tripa to be suddenly off the hook”, he stressed.
The former PT Kallista Alam concession area lies within the Tripa Peat Swamp forests of the Leuser Ecosystem, a 2.6 million hectare protected area straddling the border of Aceh and the neighbouring Province of North Sumatra. The Leuser Ecosystem has been listed as one of the “World’s Most Irreplaceable Places” and is the only place in the world where endangered Sumatran orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos live side by side.
The Tripa Peat Swamp Forest first came to the world’s attention in 2012, when massive illegal fires raged throughout the area, “destroying the forest, killing everything in their path, and threatening to totally extinguish one of the orangutan ‘capitals of the world’ “, according to Dr Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. “Tripa is one of only 3 remaining peat swamp forests on the west coast of Aceh that host the highest densities of orangutans anywhere in the world,” he emphasised.
Besides the legal actions against PT Kallista Alam, several additional cases filed by the Ministry of Environment against other companies in Tripa are also ongoing.
“The successful lawsuit against Kallista Alam set a major and much needed legal precedent in Indonesia, and pathes the way for others to stand up against dubious concessions elsewhere in the country,” proclaimed TM Zulfikar, of Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (the Indonesian ‘Sustainable Ecosystem Foundation’) “The blocking of these canals and the establishment of the new protected peat area represents another historic milestone in the battle to restore and conserve the Leuser Ecosystem, a National Strategic Area protected under National Law for its critically important environmental function. Many doubted that it could ever happen, that the drainage canals dug by Kallista Alam would ever be blocked and the forests ever restored, but here we stand, community and Government working together, proving that it can indeed be done”.
“As the Governor has stated, the law must be enforced,” reiterated Mr Husaini, “That also means that even though the illegal PT Kallista Alam concession has been withdrawn, other people cannot now claim this land. On the contrary, the court’s decision states very clearly that it must be restored to its former condition.”
“We cannot allow our forests and peatlands to be destroyed in this way. Most of the destruction is purely for quick short-term profits for just a few already extremely wealthy companies and people,” stated Rudi Putra, of the Leuser Conservation Forum. “We’ve had enough of that already. What we want to see is proper long-term management based on the realities of the environment here to ensure sustainable long-term economic development that benefits all of Aceh’s people,” he added.
Nyoman Suryadiputra, Head of Wetlands International Indonesia, also welcomed the blocking of these illegal drainage canals, explaining how critical peat swamp forests are in protecting local people from disasters and providing livelihoods, and how their destruction and drainage has far reaching global consequences due to the release of CO2 to the atmosphere, fuelling global warming. “In natural conditions peat swamps like Tripa are essentially 80-90% freshwater. Drainage canals destroy the water regulation function of the swamp, causing flash floods and droughts, seriously jeopardizing biodiversity and community livelihoods. Drainage dries the peat itself out too, of course, making it susceptible to fires and allowing its carbon content to oxidise and escape into the atmosphere. Its exactly this kind of irresponsible destruction that we have seen throughout Tripa to date that has led to Indonesia being one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.”
“This is certainly a monumental occasion in Sumatra, and even in Indonesia as a whole”, reiterated Dr Singleton. “Tripa has been devastated by the plantations operating there. Back in the early 90’s Tripa’s forest covered more than 60,000 ha and probably harboured over 3000 orangutans, not to mention tigers and countless other rare and endangered species, many of which depend entirely on swamp forest habitats for their survival. Today there are probably only around 100 to 200 orangutans remaining in Tripa, if we’re lucky, and we need to do everything we possibly can to reclaim and restore the damaged forests if we are to have any hope of keeping any orangutans surviving here.” He stressed.
The blocking of canals and restoration of the former Kallista Alam concession area is a major step forward. Its also ironic, however, that at the same time the Aceh Government’s new spatial land use plan threatens to open up huge areas of the rest of the Leuser Ecosystem, for yet more palm oil and mining concessions, and legalising numerous currently illegal roads that will criss cross Leuser’s remaining forests. “We must applaud Governor Zaini Abdullah and Mr Husaini for supporting the restoration today,” added Rudi Putra, “But we must also urge them and the government to immediately review this remarkable province’s spatial land use plan, and not allow any further destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem, to prevent many entirely new, totally avoidable environmental disasters in the future. We thank the millions around the world who have helped to save Aceh, and invite them to stay actively engaged, to keep up the pressure,” he concluded.
1. Dr Ian Singleton, Director, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (www.sumatranorangutan.org). Tel: +62 811 650491. Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
2. TM Zulfikar, Aceh Communications Officer, Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari. Tel : +62 812 6901283, Email: email@example.com
3. Rudi Putra, Forum Konservasi Leuser. Tel : +62 812 6435929, Email : firstname.lastname@example.org