Conservation groups in Indonesia, are wholly rejecting a new Aceh Government spatial plan to reduce its protected forest area from 68% to 45%, a loss of 1.2 million hectares. The plan will wreak devastation on local communities and wildlife.
The plan is to transform huge areas of Aceh forest into mining, logging or palm oil plantations meaning a devastating loss of a unique peat swamp ecosystem. This loss with all its biodiversity experts say, would be a death knell for charismatic species such as the Sumatran orangutan, rhino, elephant and tiger.
Dr. Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme said:
The new spatial plan does not even acknowledge the existence of the world renowned Leuser Ecosystem protected area or the fact that the forests they intend to "unprotect" are the last main hope for the long-term survival of iconic Sumatran endemic species such as the sumatran tiger, elephant and rhinoceros.
Plan deemed dangerous
In a press release to Digital Journal, Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist who has worked in Indonesia for almost 30 years said, "Opening up such forests is an extremely dangerous move."
Usher, who was previously involved in the Tipereska forest data review and mapping process for Aceh under the previous Governor added:
Aceh’s people know very well that removal of forests on such steep and unstable soils results in devastating landslides and floods during the heavy rains that Aceh receives every year. Taking three case studies, we can easily map and predict serious long term threats to communities from reduced food security, soil impacts, landslides and flooding.
The plan to clear these forests is a serious mistake that will result in the loss of yet more innocent lives and huge economic losses for the province. Plan almost 100 percent accepted
According to local media sources, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry has already accepted 'almost 100%' of the Aceh Government’s new proposal with the declaration that there will now be "More areas given for the community".
But in reality warns concerned conservation groups, the area allocated to communities is only a little over 1% of the planned new opening of forest (14,704 hectares). The largest allocations they said, will go to "mining (slightly less than 1,000,000 hectares), logging concessions (416,086 hectares), and palm oil concessions (256,250 hectares)."
Government's actions could spark legal action
Effendi Isma, a spokesperson for the Coalition of people Concerned for Aceh’s Forests (KPHA), said that the proposed changes have been, "Wholly rejected by Aceh’s community and environmental non-governmental organisations." Furthermore Effendi claimed, "Despite our best efforts, communities and NGO’s have been completely excluded from the development process of the new spatial plan, which has totally lacked transparency and accountability."
One of the community's opposed to the plan is Aceh Tamiang. Expressing their alarm over the proposal, they have already issued a legal warning letter, or ‘somasi’, threatening legal action if the plan is allowed to go ahead.
The Coalition said that scrutiny of the Aceh Spatial Plan and its development, appears to indicate that shortcuts have been made and people are being misled. A number of national laws "may have been breached," they said. If so, "This would put Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah and others within his government at risk of legal repercussions", they added.
Rudi Putra, the first Indonesian citizen to win the 2013 Future for Nature Award Winner in it's 30-year history, has been working with the community of Aceh Tamiang and the local police on law enforcement activities to seize and destroy oil palms illegally planted in the protected Leuser Ecosystem. Putra explained:
In the last 3 years we’ve shut down 24 illegal palm oil plantations, and cut down the illegal palms themselves and restore and regenerate the natural forest, to restore the natural function of the forest to protect the communities, with great success.
The community understand very well from previous devastating flash floods in the area, most notably in 2006, that clearing the forests upstream has a direct impact on the river flow and their own safety downstream. The people of Aceh are no fools, we know that when these unstable areas are cut, it directly leads to increasing natural disasters.
If even the villagers know this, why do the Aceh Government’s advisors not comprehend this simple connection. To protect the communities of Aceh, their safety and their livelihoods, we must protect the forests of Aceh and keep watersheds intact.
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Palm oil harvestation remains the biggest threat
The issue of palm oil companies illegally operating in protected areas has garnered international attention recently. The devastation caused to land, local communities and the unique wildlife in the area has heightened people's awareness of the situation. This makes the new plan being proposed all the more astounding, as it involves removing the protected status for the entire Tripa Peat Swamp area.
Primary habitat for the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, the peat swamps are still subject to ongoing Ministry of Environment and National Police legal action. Yet the Aceh government plan will introduce "Large-scale exploitive industrial developments", the Coalition says, including a new extensive "road network that will cut through currently protected forests, further disrupting wildlife and watersheds in the region and opening up even more forests for exploitation, both legal and illegal."
Worse, say critics, this network -- formerly named the Ladia Galaska' road network, or the 'Spider Web' because of its appearance, is a resurrection of a previously rejected plan scrapped because of the severe environmental damage it would cause.
Dr. Singleton said of the spatial plan:
Despite the ongoing legal action against palm oil companies brought by NGOs, the Ministry of the Environment and the National Police, it is now being proposed that Tripa lose its currently protected status altogether, and this unique peat swamp ecosystem and all its biodiversity and potentially hugely valuable carbon stock [is] to be handed over to the palm oil companies for final, total obliteration.Red apes will pay the greatest price of protection removal
For the beautiful human-like Sumatran orangutan already under major threat from deforestation in the Tripa swamp area, the removal of protection in the Tripa Peat Swamps could sound its death knell. In an interview with the Brisbane Times last month, Mike Griffiths, a former coordinator with the Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority said:
We’ll see the extinction of all the charismatic species in 10 to 20 years. The rhinos will be heading towards extinction in six months, the elephants will last perhaps 15 years, the tigers maybe 20. The orangutans will go quite quickly because they live in the lowlands.
It's ironic that Aceh’s forests have received tens of millions of dollars from donor countries over recent decades for their protection, including major funds from the Multi Donor Fund after the 2004 tsunami, and yet after all that the Provincial Government now plans to trash them for roads, new mines, timber and oil palm concessions.
For Rudi Putra, the consequences of the spatial plan don't even bear thinking about:
Aceh’s forests and the Leuser Ecosystem are the only place in the world where we have Sumatran rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans all living in the same area. Next week there is a major international conference on Asian Tropical Biodiversity taking place in Banda Aceh too, with hundreds of international and national scientists attending.
How can this be happening at the same time that our provincial government is planning to wipe out our rich and unique biodiversity with this new spatial plan? It simply MUST be rejected immediately for the benefit of all of us.
A petition to the Governor of Aceh, Zaini Abdulah and the Vice-Governor of Aceh, Muzakkir Manaf, is calling for the immediate rejection of the spatial plan. An English version of the petition can be found on Change.org.
Dr. Singleton called the situation in Aceh critical. "The future of each of these species, and countless others, will be placed in immediate jeopardy if the plans are allowed to proceed," he said.