FILE - A male orangutan hangs from a tree in Gunung Leuser National Park in Langkat district of the Indonesia's North Sumatra Province.
FILE - A male orangutan hangs from a tree in Gunung Leuser National Park in Langkat district of the Indonesia's North Sumatra Province.

ACEH, INDONESIA - The Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh province is one of the few places on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinos coexist in the wild.

Soon, however, these creatures may have to make way for a new addition to their habitat - geothermal energy - a prospect that has conservationists wringing their hands.

“Why do they want to build it inside Aceh’s best remaining forest?” asked Rudi Putra, adviser with the Leuser Conservation Forum.

In late August, Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah penned a letter to the central government asking to re-zone 8,000-hectares of the ecosystem for geothermal — heat the comes from the earth — exploration.

Leuser National Forest, in Aceh province, Indonesi
Leuser National Forest, in Aceh province, Indonesia

The plan, undertaken in partnership with PT Hitay Panas Holdings - a Turkish company run by one of Turkey’s richest men - targets a core zone of the 800,000-hectare Leuser National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage site at the heart of the 2.8 million-hectare ecosystem.

The government is already embroiled in a class-action lawsuit against a pending 2013 provincial spatial plan that seeks to leave Leuser open for development — a clear violation of national-level protections.

The re-zoning request was framed as an assist to President Joko Widodo, who has pledged to add 35,000 MW of electricity to Indonesia’s skimpy energy grid by 2020, and increase the percentage of renewables in the mix.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo delivers
FILE - Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo delivers a speech before Parliament members ahead of the country's Independence Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 14, 2015.

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

“Anywhere you put roads, destruction follows,” Farwiza Farhan, chairperson of the Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh NGO (HaKA) said, adding that timber interests and small-time farmers used them 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,” she said.

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

In Sumatra as a whole, logging and conversion for agriculture has toppled nearly a quarter of the forests since 2000.

FILE - Indonesian forest rangers ride on elephants
FILE - Indonesian forest rangers ride on elephants during a routine patrol in the Leuser National Park in Sumatra, April 7, 2001

Crown jewel

The Aceh government’s geothermal plans focus on 8,000 hectares in 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, made it an ideal habitat for creatures large and small.  Some 200 Sumatran elephants occupy the plateau —  about 10 percent of the world’s remaining population — that would be imperiled should the geothermal plans go through.

“If the geothermal is contracted in the area, we will lose many, many animals,” he said. “We will lose not only 8,000 hectares, but I think we’ll end up losing the whole plateau.”

By allowing farmers and loggers to strip the forest with relative impunity, it was the road-building, he stressed, that would deliver the death blow.

Rudi Putra supervises a forest restoration team cu
Rudi Putra supervises a forest restoration team cutting down a palm oil tree in the Leuser Ecosystem, Indonesia. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

Wrong way forward?

Indonesia sits astride 40 percent of the world’s geothermal potential, with half found on the island of Sumatra alone.

According to Rudi, it is unclear why, on an island with such abundant geothermal potential, a protected zone as precious as Kappi would be targeted.

“Maybe the government allocated the area to one company, and another area to another company, so that’s why the target for this company [Hitay] is the Kappi Plateau,” Rudi said.

“The government could say, ‘No, you cannot explore this area because it’s in the core of the national park,’" he said. “I don’t know why the government hasn’t talked like this.”

Attempts to reach Hitay for clarification on the matter were unsuccessful.

According to Farhan, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurabaya, who will have final say over the rezoning request, has a good track record in her nearly three years in office.

“So far, the [environment and forestry] minister [Siti Nurabaya] has been making good moves in trying to clean up the permit system and reduce deforestation and forest fires, in tackling the big problems,” she said. “But I can’t really tell where she stands on this issue.”

The ministry has not yet indicated when it might respond.

According to Rudi, micro-hydro energy offers a better solution to the province’s energy needs. Unlike geothermal — which would require locals to pay for use — micro-hydro plants would be free, “and the environmental impact would be less,” he said.

“We are not against geothermal,” Rudi said, “but there are so many other options, and the priority should be in areas outside the Kappi plateau.”

“There is no plateau like it left in Sumatra, so if we lose Kappi, it means we have lost the last of Sumatra’s richest forests,” he added.