Remember how in May I reported on all this media attention being given to the new re-districting of Aceh’s forests (made possible by former Gov Irwandi’s opening up the Tripa Peat bog and his successor’s dissolving of the Leuser Foundation’s management) which were going to give big palm oil and big mining free rein to clear cut thousands of acres of formerly protected forest? Remember that after May, the press seemingly went silent? I couldn’t find any follow-ups, and letters to those who’d written the articles went unanswered.
Well, looks like the Sumatran tiger has woken up. Might not do him a lot of good, though--local government is all set to pull his teeth out.
In Indonesia, Environmentalists See a Disaster in the Making
By SARA SCHONHARDT
Published: October 11, 2013
KALUL VILLAGE, Indonesia — Near a palm oil
plantation here, bulldozers and chainsaws can be heard in what is officially
“protected forest.” The hilly terrain is not ideal for large-scale agriculture,
but with few areas left for expansion, the loggers are denuding the land
Aceh, the northern province on the Indonesian
island of Sumatra, is a region made famous by separatist conflict and natural
disasters, calamities that long held back economic development but helped
preserve one of the world’s richest ecosystems. Now conservationists say the
rapid clearing of virgin forest is paving the way for environmental
catastrophe, turning critically endangered orangutans, tigers and elephants
into refugees, and triggering landslides and flash floods.
Much of the current activity is illegal, they
say, but if a land-use plan proposed by Aceh’s governor, Zaini Abdullah, is
approved by the national government, currently protected forests could be
rezoned as “production forests,” paving the way for logging, palm oil and
mining concessions. The Aceh government argues that the change is needed to
develop the local economy.
“They are very eager to build new roads and
open up forests,” said Muhammad Zulfikar, of the Indonesian Forum for Environment or Walhi, a nongovernmental
organization opposed to the governor’s plan. “The government must see things
not only from a political or investment point of view. What would be the point
of investing if it only leads to natural disaster in the future?”
Mr. Zaini’s proposal is part of a startling
shift by an Aceh government dominated by former separatist rebels who once
billed themselves as protectors of the region’s natural environment against
outside exploitation. It also illustrates a wider problem facing Indonesia,
where the tightly centralized power structure of the late authoritarian leader
Suharto has given way over the past 15 years to considerable local control.
Nowhere is that more the case than in Aceh, where the 2005 peace accord between
the Indonesian government and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement granted the
region special autonomy.
“The regional autonomy law gives the power to
mayors or regents to manage their affairs, to give concessions, to issue
licenses related to economic activity,” said Mas Achmad Santosa, legal adviser
to a presidential
working group tasked with monitoring Indonesia’s forests.
A recent study by Greenomics a Jakarta-based policy institute
that researches forest management, determined that unauthorized permits for
mining and palm oil plantations — meaning they were issued by local officials
without approval at the national level — have affected more than 520,000
hectares, or 1.3 million acres, of protected forest in Aceh. Elfian Effendi,
the executive director of Greenomics, called the proposed Aceh plan “an effort
to legitimize illegal permit operations.” Protected forests currently account
for about 1.84 million hectares of land in Aceh. There are about 32 million
hectares of protected forest throughout Indonesia.
Indonesia has one of the world’s fastest
rates of deforestation, much of it to make way for palm oil plantations. From
1990 to 2010, 20 percent of forest area was lost, according to a report by the
In 2010, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
declared a freeze on new logging concessions as part of a deal with Norway,
which agreed to pay Indonesia up to $1 billion for progress toward reducing
deforestation. In May, Mr. Yudhoyono extended the ban to 2015.
But critics note that the moratorium applies
only to new concessions, while weak governance and a complex structure of
forest management leave nominally protected areas open to exploitation. For
example, local governments can request that the National Development Planning
Agency rezone protected areas they consider vital to economic growth.
Aceh is a case that stands out because its
history of separatist uprisings eventually led to the special autonomy that has
left Jakarta hesitant to intervene in how the local government manages natural
“It’s quite a careful balancing act the
national government has to do in accommodating Acehnese aspirations, but also
imposing national law,” said John McCarthy, a senior lecturer on environment
and development at Australian National University.
For decades, the separatist rebellion spared Aceh from some of the deforestation taking place elsewhere in
Indonesia. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed an estimated 170,000
people and left half a million homeless in Aceh alone, further stymied
development. But it also paved the way for the peace accord that ended the
fighting and put the former rebels in charge of the devastated region.
Irwandi Yusuf, who served as governor from 2007 to 2012, was among them. Known to make surprise visits to
logging concessions and comb forests in search of illegal chainsaws, Mr.
Irwandi was the “green governor” who pledged to preserve Aceh’s rain forests.
He did so by embracing a United Nations-backed carbon-trading plan that aimed to reduce deforestation and
inject much-needed money into the economy. In 2007, he barred companies from
clearing primary forest or peatland. Three years later, he proposed a land-use
plan that would increase the amount of protected forest by 1 million hectares.
In 2011, however, he changed course, allowing the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam to develop a peat swamp
inside the Tripa conservation zone, home to endangered Sumatran orangutans.
The move caused an uproar among conservationists, who alleged that the concession violated national law.
Mr. Irwandi defended his decision, saying the money expected from projects
aimed at reducing deforestation had not materialized, in part because of
bureaucratic delays at the national level. One environmental group has taken
the case to court. But it marked the beginning of a transition from a
leadership focused on environmental protection to one that gave precedence to
“A lot of people in Aceh never accepted that such a large area of their homeland should be locked up by
conservationists,” said Mr. McCarthy. Many had hoped to cash in by brokering
deals for access to Aceh’s natural resources. He said Mr. Irwandi had supported
conservation as a means of development, but when the carbon scheme failed to
pay, he abandoned it.
His successor, Mr. Zaini, has proved no more environmentally friendly. Shortly after taking office in June 2012, he dissolved a
management body tasked with ensuring conservation inside the Leuser Ecosystem,
one of the last places where the Sumatran elephant, rhinoceros, tiger and
orangutan live together. Conservationists say it is no longer possible to
monitor what is happening in the forests.
“People are up to grab what they can while they can,” said Dr. Ian Singleton, the head of conservation at
the environmental organization PanEco and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation
Program. The program’s orangutan rehabilitation center, built to accommodate about 25
animals, currently has double that number, largely because of the increase in
forest clearing, Dr. Singleton said.
Mr. Zaini’s proposal to the national government would revise a land-use plan enacted in 2000. Officials who
helped draft the proposal say the changes are needed to accommodate expanding
human settlements and infrastructure development.
“The population has grown a lot since the previous spatial plan was drafted,” said Martunis Muhammad, the
head of investment and development financing at Aceh’s development planning
agency, Bappeda. “The changes need to account for changes in land-use
>Under the proposed plan, Mr. Martunis said, some protected forest will be reclassified as production forest,
allowing communities to cultivate the land they live on. He concedes that the
plan would reduce the protected forest area but says it would not violate a
national law designating the Leuser Ecosystem as off limits to human activity. “The
spatial plan is aimed at guiding the development of Aceh, while protecting the
environment,” he said.
Even if the plan is not approved, Dr. Singleton said, without decisive action from the national government, plantations will
continue to encroach on protected areas. “It’s now all open for
business,” he said.