After yesterday's decision by the Banda Aceh Administrative Court not to rule on a case brought by a coalition to protect orang-utans and their habitat in the Tripa forest, we spoke with Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.
Digital Journal first reported on the plight of Sumatran orang-utans on March 31, when we learned that an estimated 100 apes had been killed in 92 fires, burning out of control in the Tripa forest on the coast of Aceh province.
The fires, set illegally by a few oil palm companies to clear the last tracts of forests within their concessions said Dr. Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) in Indonesia, meant the native orang-utans could "have only a few more months, if not weeks, before disappearing forever."
The permit issued to palm oil company PT Kallista Alam by Aceh Governor Irwardi Yusuf, granted the company the right to develop a 1,600-hectare (3,950-acre) oil palm plantation in the heart of Tripa peat swamp. An area that is critical habitat for Sumatran orangutans, and part of the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the largest remaining natural habitats in the world.
The legality of the permit was challenged by Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WAHLI), a coalition of Indonesian NGOs, and yesterday, after 5 months of hearings, the Banda Aceh Administrative Court said it had no authority to rule on the case because the parties involved had not tried to solve the case outside of court.
Digital Journal caught up with Dr. Singleton to discuss his reaction to the ruling.
What will happen now?
The case will be appealed to a higher court. What the judge has done here is ludicrous and really shows what a farcical situation law enforcement is with regard to the common people and the environment here in Indonesia.
They simply try to brush it under the carpet and hope it will go away. If I were a senior member of the National Government, I would be acutely embarrassed right now since this clearly shows that the legal system has no regard for international promises and commitments, namely a 1 billon dollar agreement with the Government of Norway.
[In May 2010, Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim and Indonesia’s Foreign Minister RM Marty M. Natalegawa signed a US$1 billion deal, funded by Norwegian tax payers money, aimed at reducing deforestation in Indonesia. A deal that has been clouded by criticism and allegations of corruption].
How do you feel about the decision?
The excuses the judge has given for dropping the case are nonsense, they would be laughable if the situation wasn't so serious, and probably actually contravene regulations in themselves. Having said all that, we are not at all surprised that this judge has shown how weak and out of touch he is, and we half expected something like this to happen.
What must be done now?
The important thing right now is to keep the pressure on to halt ALL forest destruction in Tripa. There was a temprary ban on activities in the Kallista Alam concession, the one being contested, pending the result of the court case. Given that this is to be appealed, we must INSIST that ban stays in place.
We must also lobby the government as strongly as possible, to halt all clearance of forests and burning in other neighbouring concessions, since they continue unabated and most of the Tripa's remaining forests and orangutans are in those concessions ... in particular one owned by PT Surya Panen Subur 2.
If we don't do this, the orangutans will still be gone by end of 2012, no matter what happens in the PT Kallista Alam concession. This is imperative and we will appeal to the central governments' better judgement to immediately investigate and halt this clearance, since it is the only way they can salvage their international reputation re the Norway government agreement, in light of this ludicrous result from the court case in Aceh.
How can people help?
At the present time, the interests of the orangutans, other wildlife and human communities in Tripa are best served by trying to get the current wave of forest destruction and burning in Tripa halted IMMEDIATELY. Indonesia actually has a lot of legislation that supports good environmental management and conservation: our immediate focus is to cajole government agencies into enforcing their own laws.
Thus in this particular case there will be an appeal by WALHI in the higher courts, and we also need to intensify lobbying of the central Government in Jakarta to enforce the law in all the concessions in Tripa. The many supporters overseas can help with all these efforts, both by expressing their support through petitions etc., but also with funding for the campaign and lobby work itself as these are often difficult to raise money for.
Things like press conferences, travelling to government offices in Jakarta and elsewhere, legal analyses, even internet and printing: all cost money and in this case even small donations can make a big difference.
Can you rescue the orang-utans?
We are not yet attempting to rescue all of the orangutans in Tripa, though if opportunities to capture and relocate some of them do arise, we will of course do that to the best of our ability. It is much better to save the orangutans in their natural habitat, so our number one priority is to halt the current destruction.
If that fails, then we will try to salvage whatever we can of the orangutan population there before it is extinguished. And if we are in that situation, it will also require considerable funding. For the next few weeks though, the target is to get all destructive activities HALTED in Tripa.
To learn more about preserving this critically endangered Sumatran orang-utan on the verge of extinction, please visit Sumatran Orangutan.org. Even the smallest donation can make a difference said Dr. Singleton.
For a more active role, or to help with lobbying, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. There are also several petitions available to sign online; all are accessible through this Digitial Journal article. Follow SOCP on Facebook.