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Environmentalists, orangutans lose court case over palm oil

Tripa peat swamp.

The location of the Tripa peat swamps (circled) on the west coast of Aceh province, northern Sumatra, showing rivers, forest cover in 1990, peat, and district boundaries. Tripa is the site of a controversial new oil palm plantation that has could put Aceh’s governor in prison. Image courtesy of Tim Koalisi Penyelematan Rawa Tripa, a coalition of community groups seeking legal action against the governor.

Environmentalists were handed a set back in a dispute over a palm oil plantation granted in a protected peat swamp that is home to a population of critically endangered orangutans, reports the Aceh Globe and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Tuesday a court in Banda Aceh dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that WALHI, the group that brought the case, should have first sought a settlement with PT Kallista Alam, the palm oil company that is clearing the forest area.

“The Administrative Court of Banda Aceh has no authority to rule on this case. The lawsuit is unacceptable,” Judge Darmawi of Banda Aceh Administrative Court was quoted as saying by the Ache Globe. “The judges gave the opportunity for the parties to seek settlement out of court in accordance to the law.”

But according to the Sydney Morning Herald, WALHI’s lawyer, Kamaruddin, said the judges erred in their decision. An appeal is likely.

The case centers around the legality of a permit to convert peat forest in Tripa peat swamp issued last year by Aceh’s then-Governor Irwandi Yusuf. WALHI says the permit violates the protected status of the area as well as a moratorium on conversion of “deep” peat areas. The concession also seems to undermine Governor Irwandi’s commitment to protecting forests in Aceh Province. The governor has played a prominent role in the Governor’s Climate and Forest Task Force, an initiative that has brought together leaders from around the world to seek solutions to deforestation.

News of the court’s decision comes just days after an international campaign by environmental groups warned that conversion of Tripa forest could doom an important population of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans to extinction “within months”.

“Tripa’s population of the Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), could be extinct in a matter of months, even weeks if a prolonged dry spell were to set in,” said the campaign in a petition drive on the site “The Tripa peat swamp forests in Aceh have long been recognized as a UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Partnership Priority Site for Great Ape Conservation, and in the early 90′s these peat swamp forests are estimated to have contained between 2,000 and 3,000 Sumatran orang-utans. But today, only a few hundred survive, and a tipping point has now been reached where just one more serious and uncontrolled fire event could easily wipe out the remaining survivors, and all other wildlife species in these forests, many of them also Endangered and legally protected under Indonesian law.”

NASA satellite data released late last month showed dozens of fires burning in Tripa. Forest clearing has already began in the concession area, according to environmentalists.

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