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Aceh Conservationists Achieve Small Victory

  • Sara Schonhardt

Indonesian veterinarian Yenni Saraswati, top center, of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) examines the condition of an injured Sumatran orangutan found by environmental activists at a palm oil plantation in Rimba Sawang village, March 1, 2012.
Last week, the provincial government in Aceh revoked a highly controversial permit for palm oil firm PT Kallista Alam, accused by environmental groups of illegally clearing protected forest. Conservationists hail the move as a major win for forest protection.

North Sumatra is home to one of the world’s most important ecosystems for critically endangered Sumantran orangutans. In recent years, those creatures have come under threat from companies that clear the land for palm oil plantations.

The Tripa peat swamp first gained attention in March when conservation groups warned that companies operating on illegal permits were setting fire to the forests there and killing orangutans in the process.

They say the governor in Aceh at the time had violated a two-year ban on new forest conversion by granting a permit to palm oil firm PT Kallista Alam. The permit, which was issued months after the moratorium took effect, allowed the firm to develop around 1,600 hectares of land, much of it on peat that, when disturbed, releases harmful carbon into the atmosphere.

Since 2010 around 15,000 hectares of primary forest have been cleared. Now, less than a quarter of the original forest remains.

Ian Singleton, the director of conservation for an orangutan protection program in the Leuser ecosystem that surrounds Tripa, says environmental groups often struggle to prove that suspect companies are operating illegally. But the Tripa case was an exception. “This Kallista Alam was such a sitting duck, it was so clearly illegal and so easy prove that we decided to go after it,” he stated.

Earlier this year, a local environmental group, Friends of the Earth, filed a lawsuit against the company and the government in Aceh. That move sparked similar investigations from several government bodies and the police, who are looking into accusations of illegal burning.

Singleton says those investigations have shown that other companies operating in the area are also breaking laws. “Although we’re extremely thrilled that we’ve got this Kallista Alam concession revoked what we see on the ground is business as usual,” he said.

The moratorium on forest clearing is at the heart of a climate deal in which Norway pledged $1 billion to aid Indonesian efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation. The Tripa case is considered a test of Indonesia’s commitment to stop forest clearing and cut its carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020.

During a recent trip to the United States, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received an environmental stewardship award from a group of conservation organizations for his pledges. But activists here say enforcement of laws that prevent land clearing has proven difficult.

They say local governments accept money in return for issuing permits that violate national laws. Meanwhile, companies continue to burn the forests because it’s the cheapest, most effective form of land clearing.

Singleton says Kallista Alam serves as a precedent, but its tiny concession is just part of a much bigger picture. “Now our expectations are much, much higher and I think we’ve got the support of the central government to at least investigate and try to challenge, maybe even evict and prosecute some of the other companies there as well,” he added.

Less than 200 orangutans remain in the Leuser ecosystem, and Singleton predicts that if the rate of clearing doesn’t slow soon, they could all be gone by next year.