ACEH, INDONESIA — The sound of bulldozers and chainsaws breaks the silence of what was once a vast swath of rainforest in Aceh Province, Indonesia. Now, the land is scalped and upended, awaiting the planting of palm oil saplings.
Environmental activists are concerned about an Aceh government plan they say opens protected forest areas to logging, mining and palm oil plantations.
Officials in the central government have tried to ease fears, saying the plan will affect only a small fraction of the protected forest, said Mas Achmad Santosa who oversees legal affairs for the presidential working group monitoring forestry development.
“Yes, it will be reduced, but not as much as of the amount reported publicly," he said. "We also encourage the governor to initiate his environmental assessment study. Then it’s easier for the governor to make a decision: where the economic activity should be put, where areas should be conserved, should be protected, something like that.”
On Monday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said economic development in Indonesia should not come at the expense of environmental sustainability and he instructed regional governments to enforce national laws.
Still, environmentalists say their concerns are not just about how much forest will be lost. Rather they point to the problems already being caused by the clearing of Aceh’s forests.
“Most of these protected forests are in the mountainous regions, on the upstream watershed," said Yuyun Indradi, who works with the environmental advocacy group, Greenpeace. "If the protected area is opened, it will create drought, water scarcity, flash floods.”
Indonesia's Sumatra island has lost nearly half of its forests in the past 30 years. Conservationists say rapid deforestation also encourages illegal wildlife trade and could cause some species to disappear from the wild within the next two decades. They also warn that deforestation jeopardizes water supplies, contributes to flooding and can disrupt communities that depend on the forests for their livelihoods.
Muhammad Uria belongs to a coalition fighting to save the forests around Aceh Tamiang, site of see some of the province’s most rapid logging.
“This is an important area because it’s a water catchment area," he said. "It needs to be conserved because when the forests are cut it causes flooding." Uria added that now, just two hours of rain can cause major flooding down in the village.
Last week, Uria and other community members visited local lawmakers and asked them to address the destruction. So far there has been no response.
Last month, however, the Aceh government met with several environmental groups in Jakarta, including Greenpeace. The talk eased fears of widespread deforestation.
President Yudhoyono has recognized the challenge his government faces. In 2011 he signed off on a ban on new forest clearing permits that runs to 2015. But critics say the moratorium only protects a small amount of the country’s rainforests, and has been poorly implemented.
Santosa, from the presidential working unit, acknowledges that some companies violate the law and says his job is to encourage the government in Aceh to provide stronger enforcement.
“We have to make sure there is no political intervention, no money intervention, no power intervention," he said.
The situation is especially acute in Aceh, where special autonomy status gives Jakarta less control over environmental enforcement. Last year the new governor dissolved a body tasked with monitoring one of the world’s most biodiverse land areas. Conservationists say without the management body, it is harder to know what’s happening in the forests.