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Indonesia Rejects Plans for Development in Rainforest

FILE - This handout photograph taken in 2011 and released by the Leuser International Foundation shows a Sumatran rhinoceros at the Mount Leuser National Park in Indonesia's Sumatran island.

The Indonesian environment ministry has denied the Aceh provincial government’s proposal to rezone part of Mount Leuser National Park for geothermal development, saving the lives of the tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinos who co-exist there.

According to the environmental conservation group Mongobay, the ministry rejected Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah's plea that 8,000 hectares of the park’s “core zone” be changed to a “utilization zone” so that a Turkish company, Hitay Holdings, could pursue geothermal energy development there. In an August letter, Abdullah noted that the project would help President Joko Widodo, who has pledged to add 35,000 megawatts of electricity to Indonesia’s skimpy energy grid by 2020.

Environmentalists, however, worried that such development would start a chain reaction leading to Leuser’s collapse — one authorities would be powerless to stop.

“Anywhere you put roads, destruction follows,” said Farwiza Farhan, chairwoman of Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh, a nongovernmental organization. She said timber interests and small farmers used such roads to exploit forests previously inaccessible, leading to habitat loss.

“Right now it is geothermal, but what’s next? Even now, they [the authorities] can’t protect Leuser,” Farhan said.

Despite federal conservation laws, recent decades have seen illegal encroachment and logging whittle Leuser by about 5,500 hectares a year.

The Aceh government’s geothermal plans had focused on part of the Kappi Plateau, a 150,000-hectare expanse considered Leuser’s most indispensable landscape.

“Kappi contains some of the best forests remaining in the world,” said Rudi Putra, founder of the Leuser Conservation Forum.

The area’s many salt lakes and fruit-bearing trees, he added, make it an ideal habitat for creatures large and small. Some 200 endangered Sumatran elephants that occupy the plateau — about 10 percent of the world’s remaining population — would be imperiled if the geothermal plans were to go through.