Tag Archive | Sumatra

Hotspots increase in Sumatra, haze could return: NEA

AsiaOne    Jul 21, 2013

Most are in Riau province. The other hotspots on the island are primarily further north, in Aceh and North Sumatra.

 

SINGAPORE – The number of hotspots in Sumatra as tracked by satellites has gone up sharply in the last two days to reach 159 yesterday, the National Environmental Agency (NEA) said.

Of these hotspots, 63 are detected in the Riau province in central Sumatra, which is about 280km from Singapore. Some localised smoke plumes are observed to emanate from the hotspots. The other hotspots on the island are primarily further north, in Aceh and North Sumatra.

Although the smoke haze is not being blown towards Singapore at this time due to wind direction, the air quality here might take a hit if winds start to blow from the west.

At the moment, the winds are blowing from the southeast or the east.

NEA said that some states in Peninsular Malaysia have been experiencing a deterioration in their air quality since late morning yesterday with the highest Air Pollutant Index (PSI) reading at 5am today being 98 in Bukit Rambai, Malacca.

Over the next two days, dry weather conditions are expected to persist in most parts of Sumatra.

NEA will provide further haze alerts to the public if these events become more likely.

 

Elephant poaching

Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 6.00.13 PM

Photo: AFP/Getty

Huffington Post

A resident (R) looks at the carcass of a male Sumatran elephant, its head and trunks mutilated and ivory tusks missing, in Aceh Jaya district on Indonesia’s Sumatra island. According to Natural Resources Conservation Agency the elephant was killed by a booby trap set up by unidentified people.

In the month of May, three elephants were found dead in Tesso Nilo National Park, south of Aceh. Fewer than 3,000 endangered Sumatran elephants remain in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rampant expansion of palm oil, paper plantations, and mines, has destroyed nearly 70 percent of the Sumatran elephant’s forest habitat over 25 years, conservationist says, and the animals remain a target of poaching.

 

Indonesia’s fires are of global concern

By Wendy Miles and Micah Fisher, Hawaii   Opinion, Jakarta Post July 5

The smoke rising from fires in Sumatra can be seen from outer space. Air pollution in Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia has spiked, reaching levels hazardous to human health. Although the fires are of immediate concern at the regional level, they are quite disconcerting at the global scale.

The fires originate in one of Earth’s carbon super-sinks: peat swamps. Hidden underneath Sumatra’s lowland rain forests are thousands of years of partially rotted tree trunks, branches, and leaves which never fully decomposed after their submersion into water.

This dark under-world has the potential to become an inferno when exposed to air and ignited. Thus, as Indonesia’s peatlands are drained and burned, one of the world’s greatest long-term carbon sinks is being transformed into a rapid carbon source.

Scientists estimate that during the Indonesian fires of 1997, between .81-2.67 gigatons of carbon were released into Earth’s atmosphere. This is comparable to 13-40 percent of the fossil fuels emitted globally that same year, catapulting Indonesia to be ranked the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the US) according to some indices.

Over US$1.4 billion has been invested to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Indonesia. Investors include Norway, Australia, Germany, United States, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, South Korea and Japan — as well as private companies such as Merrill Lynch, the Marubeni Corporation and Gazprom. Why are these investments not working in Riau Province, where most of the fires causing the Singapore Haze have occurred?

One strategy being pursued to combat Indonesia’s forest fires and high deforestation rates is a mechanism known as REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Envisioned as a form of “payments for environmental services”, high-emission countries and companies pay rainforest-rich nations and communities to conserve forests, thus “offsetting” carbon emissions in one location through the sequestration of carbon in another.

This strategy is based on the premise that market logic is more effective than government regulations in curbing carbon emissions.

Indonesia now hosts more than 50 international REDD+ carbon-offsetting initiatives that promise potentially billions of dollars worth of investments. But the haze looming over Sumatra confronts REDD+ investors and Indonesia with the contradictions of market-based solutions.

Using NASA’s Active Fire Data and Indonesian Forestry Ministry concession maps of Riau, the World Resources Institute has shown that more than half of last week’s fires were on timber and oil palm concessions.

Ironically, the two corporations holding over half of these concessions are Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas International (which includes Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, Ltd.).

According to a UN-REDD inventory, these two Indonesian conglomerates fund REDD+ initiatives in Riau Province as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. Unfortunately, the emissions associated with this week’s blazes are sure to outweigh the potential offsets of REDD+ activities in Riau Province.

In the coming weeks there will be attempts to pinpoint the source of Sumatra’s peatland fires. Tracking the culprits has proven difficult in years past, as these fires are not isolated events and peat can actually smolder below ground for months or even years before resurfacing into flames.

Accusations already abound against Indonesia’s conglomerates, palm oil companies, smallholder farmers, and migrants squatting on concessions. Some of the accused are trying to increase profit margins, while others are struggling to make a daily living. But they all share the same market logic that underlies the REDD+ initiatives.

Some people will interpret these fires as an example of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The rational individual (e.g. the Sumatran farmer or Indonesian corporation) will make ever-increasing demands on natural resources until the expected costs of his or her actions equal the anticipated benefits.

Prioritizing personal interests, individuals sharing the commons (e.g. Indonesia) ignore the impacts of their actions on others (e.g. Singapore). In the end, everyone suffers.

But Hardin’s thesis is an over-simplification of reality. Decades of research have shown that societies repeatedly overcome the risk of such tragedies — finding ways to communicate, collaborate and sustainably manage their natural resources.

The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom recognized that the “Global Commons” presents humanity with a new challenge. Earth’s atmosphere is a case in point.

Can we come together as nations, corporations, organizations, and individuals to build an atmospheric ethic?

Wendy Miles researches the political ecology of REDD+ in Indonesia’s peatlands.  Micah Fisher has long worked and lived in Indonesia. Both Miles and Fisher are PhD students at the University of Hawaii’s geography department.

 

Special report Palm oil’s forgotten victims: Sumatran elephants suffer in rush for ‘liquid ivory’

The Ecologist/ Jim Wickens  June 30

 

Western consumers are inadvertently driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction by eating, washing and wearing – in cosmetics – the derivatives of a fruit that is destroying the animal’s last remaining forest habitat. Jim Wickens reports

Everyday we read about the tragic death of another African elephant slaughter, the world watching in horror at the sight of desiccated carcasses, dried pools of blood and crudely-hewn stumps where tusks once were;snapshots from distant crime scenes feeding a ghoulish market for ivory in the Far East. The African ‘elephant wars’ make comfortable viewing for Western audiences who assume a moral superiority over the slaughter – a narrative where the rest of the world outside of Africa and China plays little role in the wildlife tragedy unfolding there on a daily basis.

There are around half a million African elephants currently left in the wild, but, by contrast, just 2500 Sumatran elephants remain today. It is – by far – the most endangered elephant in the world, but it is an animal whose fate is largely unreported to the outside world. Coincidence perhaps, or an uncomfortable truth? On my journey into the forested lands of Aceh in Sumatra, I’ve found that it is not poaching that is driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction, but palm oil expansion, and we are eating it, washing with it, and smearing it on our faces every single day.

Palm frontline

Crouching low in the vines, I can smell the diesel fumes wafting up from the chainsaw that whines away just metres away from us. The sound stops, a brief pause followed by a towering crash as an ancient hardwood plummets through the canopy. This is the frontline in the struggle against palm oil, a shifting frontier that is eating away at the most biodiverse forest on the planet, and it’s a dangerous place to be. Whispering so as not to be heard, our guides urgently beckon us away. To be spotted could be lethal – loggers here are frequently armed, a melting pot mafia of community members, freedom fighters and army personnel whose rule is the law in these remote stretches of Aceh, the Northern most province of Sumatra. This rarely-visited corner of Indonesia is home to the last great forest habitats of the Sumatran elephant in the world. And it is being destroyed for palm oil.

For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.

Communities returning home after the Aceh ceasefire have found themselves facing a new threat to their livelihoods; crop damage caused by roaming herds of elephants, opportunistically-eating their way through croplands and antagonising families already brought to their knees by decades of civil war. And the death toll on both sides of the species divide is rising every month.

Ransomed in frustration

Nicknamed Raja by the people who fed him, the baby elephant cuts a pitiful sight, straining for food at the end of a rusty padlock and chain. Caught in a plantation in Aceh Utara last month, the villagers said they were keeping him here by force. Government vets have tried to remove him, but they refused, demanding compensation for the damage that elephants do to their land first. Farmer Sabaruddin, showed us chewed up banana leaves, missing coco pods and a hut verging on collapse, all surrounded by tell-tale feet marks of thieving elephants, that he says are drastically impacting on the livelihoods of the community here.

‘The people are angry when the elephants destroy the fields, because it is not just one or two years waiting to harvest, but sometimes for many years. When we are about to harvest the elephants had already come and destroyed the field. We plant again and then just when it’s about time to harvest, it’s destroyed again’, he said. Deprived of full time veterinarian care, Raja died two weeks later at the end of his chain. He is not alone.

In Geumpang further North, a village chief took us up a winding lane to the sight of fresh mound of earth. It is all that remains of a young male elephant that was electrocuted by a low hanging cable over crops two nights earlier. It’s not the elephant’s death that worries him however, but the fate of his people.

‘There was a conflict here in which one of our people was killed because the elephant stepped on him when he tried to chase them away…Imagine, he has three children, now they don’t have any more education.’ ‘If we talk about the future of elephants, we have also to prioritise the importance on the future of the people. If the future of the people is good, then, the future of the elephants may also be better’ he warned.

Problem elephants

For years the government response to crop-raiding elephants has been to capture and contain animals deemed as ‘problematic’. We visited Saree elephant camp, a government-run containment centre in Aceh, to observe conditions. Despite the best efforts of staff labouring under sparse resources, these holding centres are effectively prisons: barren sites where elephants deemed to be problematic are forcibly taken from the wild and subjected to a life of chained captivity, with no hope of release and little chance of enrichment to break the monotony. Dozens of elephants are living out a life of containment in these camps across Sumatra.

I watched in the dying heat of the day as mahouts barked instructions and scrubbed elephants kneeling to their every word, fearful perhaps of the sharp-pronged bull hooks tucked into the trousers of their masters. One elephant seemed psychologically scarred, repeatedly swinging its head back and forth as it gazed out over rusty barbed wire at life on the outside of the camp.

Elephant containment camps are cruel, say welfare campaigners, but the real tragedy for the elephants may not be so much that individual elephants are contained, but rather that these critically endangered animals have to be removed from the wild, and a rapidly-shrinking gene pool, in the first place.

Eaten alive

The question, ask conservationists, is not how to keep wandering elephants away from communities croplands, but why these critically endangered herds are venturing out of their forest homes in the first place.

Mike Griffith’s is a leading conservationist in Sumatra and until early 2013, was the deputy director of the Aceh government department that was charged with forest protection.

‘We have a major problem and the only way to save the elephants, I believe, is to separate the elephants from the actions of man, that means oil palm, gardens and the impacts of roads and so on, that is why you have national parks, the is why you have reserves, that is why you have the Leuser ecosystem.’

A jagged line of towering peaks that run across much of Aceh, the Leuser ecosystem is the most biodiverse forest in S.E Asia, 2.2 million hectares of forested hills that stretch across Aceh and the only place on earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos are found together in the wild. It is a cornucopia of biological richness and a sanctuary for hundreds of elephants who live amidst it’s hills and hidden valleys that are protected from development under Indonesian law. But it’s being eaten alive.

Working closely with local rangers from Aceh, we drove close to the Leuser frontier, keen to get a sense of this wildlife sanctuary famed around the world. Hours of driving through endless palm plantations brought us not to forests but to mud-stained hillsides clogged with debris and freshly torn tree roots.

Bulldozers had taken on where chainsaws had done their work, relentlessly bashing through logs and stumps to drive terraces into the hillsides. Navigating our way through the quagmire, we passed two motorbikes, wildlife traders waving cheerfully on their way to check bird traps that they had laid the night before on the newly-penetrated forest edge. Two howler monkeys clung to a tree stump, silent and motionless, overlooking a thousand hectares of devastation. The only green to be seen were tiny seedlings, their leaves fluttering quietly along the newly-cleared terraces. Oil palm.

It was a sight that left the team, the rangers even who deal with destruction on a weekly basis, speechless. A week earlier these rolling hills had been rainforest, home to many of the rarest large animals on the planet. ‘When you replace these forests with oil palm plantations, you create green deserts… Nothing lives there except cockroaches, mosquitos and rats.’ says Mike Griffiths.

In the silence we took in the destruction, a line of brown dotted by bulldozers, a silence broken only by the ceaseless whine of chainsaws eating their way deeper and deeper into the Leuser forest refuge. This expansion is a relentless onslaught taking place every day in Aceh and across Sumatra.

The sticky palm oil trail back to Britain

We eat it as vegetable oil, wash our clothes with it as detergent, we use it in cosmetics, we wash with it as shampoo and soap; soon we will even be burning it in our cars. There are over 30 names for palm oil derivatives, many used daily in the home. According to Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer, companies use palm oil because it’s cheap and incredibly versatile. It is an industrial wonder ingredient which has rapidly been incorporated as an invisible fat and filler into dozens of products that permeate our every day lives.

Under pressure from campaigners, food companies have begun to refer to a plethora of terms which suggest the palm-derived ingredients within are ‘sustainably’ sourced, endorsed by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated – and heavily criticised – certification body working on palm oil issues.

But this investigation has found that much of the palm oil sold under the guise of sustainability is actually sourced from palm plantations which may not even have passed the weak certification criteria. Two of the four certification methods operating under the RSPO remit allow food companies to use oil from uncertified plantations in food products that are allowed to be mixed or ‘offset’ from plantations that tick the right boxes elsewhere.

Confused? You are not alone. The RSPO is a mess, say campaigners, misleading consumers and allowing multinational brands and industry-backed NGOs who work within the RSPO process to paint little more than a green tinge over an inherently destructive industry.

‘It is criminal that consumer industries are able to hide behind this gross illusion of “sustainable” palm oil when its production is persistently fuelling the wholesale destruction of the world’s most vital forests,’ says Jo Cary-Elwes from the conservation organisation Elephant Family. Lowland habitats in Sumatra – the only areas where critically endangered elephants can survive in the wild, are the same sought-after areas exploited and planted over in palm oil.

Unless palm oil expansion is halted and reversed, conservationists say, it will be game over for the Sumatran elephant, which, alongside the rhino and tiger, teeters close to the brink of extinction. But you wouldn’t know that from palm oil labelling. When you buy organic tomatoes, you get organic tomatoes. When you buy free range eggs, you get free range eggs. But when you buy palm oil labelled as sustainable in some way there is a good chance that what you actually get is oil which has been produced from a plantation built over the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the planet.

A resistance movement is born

Graham Usher is a man on a mission. We meet on the side of a muddy track high up in the midst of another freshly-planted palm concession that lies within the protected confines of the Leuser ecosystem. Crouching under a tent in the blistering midday heat alongside local rangers, he is busy putting the finishing touches to a an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, that he is using to map out fresh incursions into the forest. With a shout and the briefest of run-ups, the self-made drone is in the air and recording high-resolution footage that shows the scale of fresh cuts in the lush trees.

‘It’s a never ending job,’ he says. ‘It takes them half an hour to chop down a 400yr old tree, but if you want to guard it, it’s 24hrs a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year… the use of a drone is a game changer,’ he says. ‘This sort of work, this collection of evidence, provides us with a much stronger case when you go to decision makers and say, look, this is what is going on, these are your laws, why isn’t action being taken?’

Faced with dysfunctional governance and a spineless certification system, local communities in Aceh, fearful of floods caused by land clearance upstream, are fighting back. In 2012 over a thousand hectares of illegally grown palm oil was confiscated and chain-sawed down, the terraces bulldozed back into their natural shape. Within two months elephants had returned; within 2 years, orangutans, says Taesar, one of the rangers leading the regeneration project, ‘and we have over 5000 hectares more that we are trying to win back at the moment.’

It’s heartening to hear that the tide of forest clearance can be slowed, and even turned around, albeit it not by the multi-million dollar ‘responsible’ palm industry or conservation groups based in Europe and the USA who work so closely with the industry, but instead by grass-roots activism and local communities, many of whom are volunteers.

Despite these efforts however, at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The Governor of Aceh recently issued a controversial ‘spatial’ plan for Aceh, a dryly-worded policy document concerned with reclassifying land use across Aceh. But the details within, say conservationists, are terrifying. The plan effectively green-lights environmental roll-back and decades of forest protection. It’s a carve-up of much of the remaining low-lying forest in Aceh, opening the way for mining and hundreds of thousands of hectares of further palm plantains”.

‘When you look at the needs of the Sumatran elephant, they need lowland forest to live in every time you disturb them, every time you put in plantations, you put in farming, you get conflict. Who is the loser out of that? It is always the elephant, they will disappear if we do not have large areas of lowland rainforest protected for them…’ says Graham. ‘If we don’t take urgent action a few year down the road we will be looking at the leuser ecosystems and saying my god, why didn’t we do more when we had the chance?’

In response to our request for a statement on the Spatial Plan, a spokesperson for the Indonesian government said the plan is a mess, stating that it is largely driven from political interests in Aceh itself. But he stressed that the authorities in Jakarta are trying to balance the needs of the environment with the livelihood needs of 250 million Indonesians.

Death by chocolate

On our last day in Aceh, the news came through that two more elephants have been found dead further south. Our cameraman flies through the night and arrives to record the grizzly scene. The images show two carcasses that seem to writhe amidst the shadows on the forest floor, an army of maggots feasting upon the flesh of the dead elephants that lie there. Elephants disappear quickly in the jungle. A convenience not lost on the oil palm plantation workers who are accused of frequently lacing chocolate bars with rat poison or phosphates, dropping them temptingly on elephant paths that meander close to valuable oil palm plantations.

The young male and female animals we filmed were one of three elephants poisoned in Sumatra last month, the latest casualties in the ever-growing elephant conflict.

Eclipsed in the media by the slaughter of African elephants for Asian ivory consumption, the fragile fate of the Sumatran elephant remains out of sight, hidden amidst the dark recesses of the rapidly disappearing forests that they call home.

It’s not poaching, but palm oil which remains the principle threat to the survival of the Sumatran elephant in the wild. Industrially-produced palm oil from Sumatra is a ‘liquid ivory’, and everybody reading this article inadvertently consumes it every day. Eating, bathing and washing ourselves in a fruit that has displaced forests in the last place on earth where the Sumatran elephant can survive.

Walking away from the chainsaw gangs in Leuser, our ranger turns and confronts me. ‘The world must see this destruction, the world must know what is happening now… see the destruction everywhere, we have to rise up and prevent all of these things from happening before it is too late. What people need to do, people from every part of the world need to think smart, think creatively and never to use any product that contains processed palm products. Palm oil destroys the forests’, he said. Time perhaps to heed his words.

Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist and producer with the Ecologist Film Unit

 

Check that out!

‘Checkout ’ takes on a special meaning at the Zoopermarket officially launched today at Melbourne Zoo.

At a normal supermarket checkout, consumers pay for their selected products. At the Zoopermarket, consumers will get to check out the ingredients in some items commonly found on supermarket shelves.

Knowing what’s what when confronted with an array of products can be confusing, especially since Australia’s labelling laws allow palm oil to be labelled as ‘vegetable oil’.

Scanning selected Zoopermarket items will reveal whether the manufacturer is using palm oil, and if so whether it is being produced sustainably.

The Zoopermarket is the latest stage in the ongoing Don’t Palm us Off campaign, which aims to draw consumer attention to the widespread use of unsustainably produced palm oil and facilitate their communication with manufacturers on this issue to encourage use of sustainably sourced palm oil.

The clearing of rainforest in order to plant vast expanses of palm oil trees is the single largest factor in harming wildlife populations in South East Asia, including the rapidly diminishing orang-utan population.

Palm oil is found in about 40% of the products on supermarket shelves. Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is an alternative ingredient that is produced without harming local wildlife and communities.

Now Zoo visitors can see for themselves how some common supermarket products rate in terms of their use of palm oil.

Visitors will be able to scan selected products, see where they rate on this three-stage scale, and email manufacturers accordingly, either to congratulate them or to ask for a change in palm oil policy.

The Zoopermarket is located at our Orang-utan Sanctuary giving visitors viewing Asia’s only Great Apes better information about the issue that is pushing them towards extinction.

visit Zoo Victoria Website today and find out how you can make a difference!

Conservation scientists: Aceh’s spatial plan a risk to forests, wildlife, and people

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com

March 22, 2013

A group of biologists and conservation scientists meeting in Sumatra warned that potential changes to Aceh’s spatial plan could undermine some of the ecological services that underpin the Indonesian province’s economy and well-being of its citizens. After its meeting from March 18-22 in Banda Aceh, the Asia chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) issued a declaration [PDF] highlighting the importance of the region’s tropical forest ecosystem, which is potentially at risk due to proposed changes to its spatial plan or system of land-use zoning.

Under the new spatial plan, more than 150,000 hectares of previously protected forest land would be given over for logging and conversion to plantations. Nearly a million hectares of mining exploration licenses would be granted.

One concern is that some concessions are located in steep watersheds that sustain lowland rice production. Another worry, highlighted by environmental groups, is that substantial blocks of surviving lowland habitats for orangutans would be put up for logging and oil palm plantations, putting the critically endangered species at increased risk. Aceh is one the only place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living in the same forest.

The ATBC resolution notes some of these concerns. “Aceh forests are essential for food security, regulating water flows in both the monsoon and drought seasons to irrigate rice fields and other cash crops,” states the declaration. “Forest disruption in Aceh’s upland areas will increase the risk of destructive flooding for people living downstream in the coastal lowlands.”

ATBC says that the proposed spatial plan “will elevate the risk of serious local environmental problems, a loss of key nature hydrological functions, and serious disruption of lowland river systems and fisheries, which could negatively affect human livelihoods and biodiversity.” It adds that “further conversion of lowland forest will increase conflicts between people and surviving wild elephants, posing a significant threat to farming livelihoods.”

The group, which is the largest association of tropical conservation scientists, therefore recommended that Aceh’s spatial plan “be based on the extensive, high-quality spatial data that are available within the Government of Aceh agencies, especially maps on watershed forest areas, environmental risk, soil types, geological hazards, human population centers, rainfall and the distribution of Aceh’s wildlife.” It also called for action against illegal logging, forest conservation, and road construction.

ATBC-Asia urged the Aceh government to adopt an economic development model that “prioritizes clean development and payments for environmental services, while limiting unsustainable natural resource extraction.

Aceh has the most extensive forest cover of any province in Sumatra. It has had a moratorium on logging since 2007, although the new spatial plan would effectively end the logging ban.

 

Large blocks of Sumatra’s endangered rainforest may be put up for mining, logging

Rainforest in the Leuser Ecosystem Area

Mongabay

The Indonesian province of Aceh on the western tip of the island of Sumatra may be preparing to lift the protected status of key areas of lowland rainforest potentially ending its bid to earn carbon credits from forest conservation and putting several endangered species at increased risk, according to reports.

Under a draft plan developed by the Aceh parliament’s spatial planning committee, some 71,857 hectares of protected areas will lose their protected status and be turned over for logging, mining, and conversion for plantations. While the area represents two percent of Aceh’s forests, which presently cover 55 percent of the province’s land mass, it includes some of Sumatra’s increasingly rare lowland forests. Aceh has the most extensive forest cover left in Sumatra, where vast swathes of forest — 40 percent of its primary forests and 36 percent of its total forest cover since 1990 — have been cleared for pulp and paper plantations, oil palm estates, and agriculture.

 

The draft plan is a significant departure from the plan proposed by Aceh’s last governor, Yusuf Irwandi, who championed himself as a conservationist. Irwandi’s plan — which was never passed — called for increasing forest cover to 68 percent of the province through strict conservation and reforestation. The new plan targets 45 percent, including reactivating abandoned logging concessions.

The former governor’s plan was driven by his interest in earning carbon credits under Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), a opposed mechanism that aims to compensate tropical countries for protecting and restoring forests. But REDD+ has failed to develop as hoped, undercutting the market for, and value of, forest-conservation based credits. Now one of the first REDD+ projects in the world — located in Aceh’s Ulu Masen — appears to be on the chopping block, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Another wilderness area, Ulu Masen, which was slated to become a 735,000-hectare preservation area to prevent carbon emissions, is also not recognized under the spatial plan,” wrote Michael Bachelard for the newspaper.

Part of the motivation for the change may be political, according to a local government source who spoke to Mongabay.com on the condition of anonymity.

“The 68 percent figure was in the draft spatial plan prepared by the Irwandi administration, however the government reform inside Aceh needed to achieve this goal never took place during his term,” the official said. “Now what we are left with is a team that is 100% anti anything that slightly resembles Irwandi, and a team of bureaucrats who have no faith in REDD delivering any funding and are preparing to launch major deforestation and [road] projects in the name of ‘community development’ which in reality is simply driven by a small number of large businesses.”

Environmentalists say some of the areas set to be excised from reserves under the revised spatial plan would go to mining, palm oil, and logging companies. The Aceh branch of WAHLI, a Indonesian environmental group, said that Acehnese civil society groups are reviewing the proposed changes and matching them with road development projects, oil palm plantations, and mining concessions.

“We fear that these changes are influenced by [business] interests,” TM Zulfikar, Executive Director of Walhi Aceh, told Mongabay-Indonesia. “We encourage the committee to open the spatial plan to the public.’

But Aceh’s Head of Planning Department of Forestry and Plantation, Saminuddin B. Tou, denied that mining and palm oil interests are influencing the process. He said some of the areas have already been converted and developed despite being designated as protected by the central government’s Ministry of Forestry.

“We checked the boundary of the Wildlife Reserve Rawa Singkil on the ground and found is a discrepancy between the Ministry of Forestry map and the conditions in the field,” Saminuddin told Mongabay-Indonesia. “When the boundaries of Wildlife Reserve were set in the year of 2000, there were already settlements in the town of Subulussalam and oil palm plantations leases in the conservation area. This is our chance to issue a concession areas and settlements which were already established in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.”

However the draft spatial plan also proposes opening up parts of the Leuser Ecosystem Area, an zone renowned for its biodiversity — including populations of critically endangered tigers, orangutans, rhinos, and elephants — for concessions. Leuser has been designated as a “National Strategic Area” by the central government, requiring its protection and “sustainable management”. Yet Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah recently transferred control of the Leuser ecosystem’s independent management authority to the province’s Department of Forestry, which is “traditionally pro-development” according to the Sydney Morning Herald report, raising questions about the long-term commitment to protecting the area. Leuser has already been a source of tension between the central government and the government of Aceh. Former Governor Irwandi, despite his green reputation, in 2011 granted an oil palm development permit in the Leuser’s Tripa peat swamp in violation of the central government’s moratorium on new concessions in the area. That palm oil company’s permit was later revoked, but not before the area was heavily damaged.

Ultimately if Aceh’s proposed changes to its spatial plan are deemed too radical, some could be reined in the central government. Furthermore, local opposition could make it difficult for excessive concession development in areas used traditionally by communities. Aceh still has extensive forest cover partly due to opposition in the form of an insurgency by the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka – GAM), which fought against the Indonesian government from 1976-2005. Among GAM’s grievances was natural resource extraction by outsiders. 

 

Nonetheless environmentalists are deeply concerned about the proposed spatial plan.

“In Indonesia, most of the good forest is gone except Aceh and Papua,” Mike Griffiths, a former coordinator for the Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority told Sydney Morning Herald. “[Now, in Aceh] they are planning, sooner or later, to knock down a quarter of their forests, most of them in the lowland areas.”

“If this happens, we’ll see the extinction of all the charismatic species in 10 to 20 years.” 

 

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