Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry is close to accepting a proposal to open 1.2 million hectares of forest in Aceh for mining, logging, and palm oil production, reports the Aceh Post.
In an article posted Wednesday, Tgk. Anwar, the chairman of the Aceh Government’s Spatial Planning Committee, claimed that the Ministry of Forestry has accepted “almost 100%” of the province’s new spatial plan, which would zone large blocks of previously protected forest for mineral extraction, timber concessions, and oil palm plantations. Aceh has the most forest cover of any province in Sumatra, which lost 36 percent of its forests in the past 20 years.
According to a coalition of environmental groups opposing the proposed move, the new spatial plan would grant nearly one million hectares of land for mining, 416,086 for logging, and 256,250 ha for palm oil. It also “includes plans to remove the protected status of the entire Tripa Peat Swamp Forest, an area that has received massive international attention due to illegal activities by palm oil companies destroying a global priority habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, which are still subject to ongoing Ministry of Environment and National Police legal action,” according to the Coalition of people Concerned for Aceh’s Forests (KPHA).
Most of the allocations are for industrial developers. Only 14,704 ha is for local communities. The plan would also approve an extensive new network of roads that would run through protected forests.
Aceh province, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Sumatran Forest and Google Earth.
In a statement released Wednesday, KPHA members sharply criticized the proposed spatial plan for its potential impact on Aceh’s rich biodiversity.
“The proposed changes have been wholly rejected by Aceh’s community and environmental non-governmental organizations,” said KPHA spokesperson Efendi. “Despite our best efforts, communities and NGO’s have been completely excluded from the development process of the new spatial plan, which has totally lacked transparency and accountability.”
“The plan also includes creating a new transmigration site within the UNESCO Sumatra Tropical Rainforest World Heritage Site. Furthermore, the new plan makes absolutely no mention of the legally and nationally protected Leuser Ecosystem, a National Strategic Area for its environmental function, and the abolishment of the Ulu Masen’s designation as a Provincial Strategic Area.”
The spatial plan would also affect areas currently off-limits to conversion under Indonesia’s two-year moratorium on new forestry concessions.
“Despite the ongoing legal action against palm oil companies brought by NGOs, the Ministry of the Environment and the National Police, it is now being proposed that Tripa lose its currently protected status altogether, and for this unique peat swamp ecosystem and all its biodiversity and potentially hugely valuable carbon stock to be handed over to the palm oil companies for final, total obliteration,” said Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. “And now its not just Tripa and orangutans either. The new spatial plan does not even acknowledge the existence of the world renowned Leuser Ecosystem protected area or the fact that the forests they intend to ‘unprotect’ are the last main hope for the long-term survival of iconic Sumatran endemic species such as the sumatran tiger, elephant and rhinoceros. The future of each of these species, and countless others, will be placed in immediate jeopardy if the plans are allowed to proceed.”
Singleton added that the spatial plan would seem to undermine tens of millions of dollars in donor funding that has gone toward protecting Aceh’s forests. The plan would also seem to jeopardize Aceh’s standing as a global leader on forest protection through its participation in the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, which aims to develop financial mechanisms for keeping forests standing. Aceh was one of the first sub-national entities to join the initiative.
Finally the statement from the coalition argued that the proposed reductions in Aceh’s forest cover would put it at greater risk to disasters. Aceh suffered the brunt of the devastating December 2004 tsunami which leveled coastal communities, killing over 100,000 Achenese.
“Areas that had previously been identified as being too high or too steep for conversion, or as having inappropriate soil types and heavy rainfall, so that under existing Indonesian regulations they should be Protected Forests (Hutan Lindung), have now been identified as targets for logging concessions, roads, mining concessions and palm oil plantations, ” said Graham Usher. “Opening up such forests is an extremely dangerous move. Aceh’s people know very well that removal of forests on such steep and unstable soils results in devastating landslides and floods during the heavy rains that Aceh receives every year.”
“The community understand very well from previous devastating flash floods in the area, most notably in 2006, that clearing the forests upstream has a direct impact on the river flow and their own safety downstream,” added environmental journalist Rudi Putra. “The people of Aceh are no fools, we know that when these unstable areas are cut, it directly leads to increasing natural disasters.”