Faint ray of hope for Orangutans – Canberra Times

Faint ray of hope for orang-utans
Paul Malone
April 15, 2012
OPINION – Canberra Times

In 1997 fires in drained Indonesian peat swamps sent smoke billowing across South-East Asia and released more carbon into the atmosphere than the European Union generates in fossil fuel burning in a year.

The disaster was in part due to peat land deforestation promoted by former Indonesian President Suharto, who hoped to create a vast rice growing area in Kalimantan, Borneo. Instead, the land proved unsuitable for rice. Once lit, the fires were near impossible to extinguish, smouldering underground and periodically bursting to the surface to ignite forest fires.

It was a wake-up call to the world, and the United Nations moved to do something about it through the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries scheme. For its part, Australia initially undertook to rehabilitate forest in Kalimantan. It is now considering whether to undertake a second project in Sumatra.

The REDD program should have been win-win. Indonesia would get money to employ people to rehabilitate degraded land and preserve forests. The developed world would pay for a natural carbon store, the preservation of forests and the maintenance of habitats for wildlife.

But it has not worked like that. Forest destruction has continued.

Early this month a three-judge court in the Sumatran province of Aceh threw out a case seeking to stop the destruction of the 1600-hectare Tripa forest, home of one of the few remaining dense populations of orang-utans.

Environmentalists had sought to stop PT Kallista Alam from burning and clearing the peat swamp for a palm oil plantation. They claimed the company had a track record of dubious behaviour, with numerous complaints from local communities and illegal outbreaks of fire on land it managed.

The permit was granted on August 25 last year by the then Governor of Aceh, Dr Irwandi Yusuf. The environmentalists said the decision contravened a raft of laws and regulations, including the National Spatial Planning Law 26/2007 and Presidential Instruction 10/2011 which forbade any new permits on primary forest and peat land.

The decision also flew in the face of statements by the secretary-general of the Indonesian Forestry Ministry, Hadi Daryanto, who told the Jakarta Post last year that PT Kallista Alam’s permit was ”clearly a violation because the area in question is a peat forest”.

Dr Irwandi – who previously had a reputation as an environmentalist – has defended his decision in a bizarre way. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald he said it was ”morally wrong” but he had done it as a wake-up call to the international community over its failing climate change policies.

He was disillusioned with the REDD schemes and threatened to allow more burning if nothing changed. He denied claims by conservationists that 100 or more orang-utans had died when the company cleared forests, saying his inspectors viewed the area and found none there.

In response, the director of conservation at the Sumatran orang-utan conservation program, Dr Ian Singleton, said he could take Dr Irwandi into that Kallista Alam concession and find 10 orang-utan nests within 20 minutes. He said there had been at least 100 of the apes living in the concession that was destroyed.

Asked if the Indonesian government was disillusioned with the REDD scheme, a spokesman for the embassy in Canberra said, ”I haven’t heard anything to that effect.”

The president of the Australian orang-utan project, Leif Cocks, appealed to the Australian government to ask the Indonesian government to uphold its laws and prevent the destruction of the Tripa swamp. He said the problem with the current REDD development process was that it was like developing a fire management plan while the house was burning.

AusAID said the Australian government had clearly stated its support for Indonesia’s moratorium on new concessions in primary forests and peat land. Asked if there was any point in pumping money into Indonesia for environmental protection and rehabilitation purposes if authorities continued to destroy forests, AusAID said Indonesia had one of the highest rates of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Therefore, efforts to reduce this trend were just the beginning. Australia has been a major provider of aid to Indonesia in recent years. Since the Boxing Day tsunami hit Aceh in 2004 Australia has provided $2.39 billion in total aid, of which $46.2 million has been for climate change and the environment.

Australia embarked on the Kalimantan REDD project to rehabilitate 70,000 hectares of peat land in September 2007. The project progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace.

In May 2010 AusAID told The Canberra Times that work to begin blocking drainage canals to raise the water table and re-wet the peat was expected to begin ”later that year”.

But in November 2011, more than four years on from the launch of the program, AusAID was still only promising that work on canal blocking would ”soon start”.

In response to questions last week AusAID said more than 50,000 seedlings had now been planted and a further 1.4 million would be planted this year.

Trialling of canal-blocking methodology was underway and six small canals had been blocked.

Finalisation of an environmental impact assessment would allow larger scale blocking in the coming months.

Dr Irwandi’s permit grant has done irreparable damage to the environment but the good news is that in last week’s Aceh election he lost his bid for a new term as governor. In addition, an aide to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reported to have expressed concern about the court ruling clearing the governor’s action. It is to be hoped that increasing political pressure will see the country abide by its international agreements to preserve the environment.

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About endoftheicons

The Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia is in grave danger. Local politicians want to allow logging, mining and palm oil plantations in this vulnerable area. Sumatran orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers are already hanging on by a thread. They will not survive the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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