Environmentalists in Indonesia’s Aceh Province are calling upon the local governor to nominate the Leuser Ecosystem as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to help protect the area — one of the last places where rhinos, elephants, tigers, and orangutans share the same habitat — from new legislation that would grant large blocks of forest for logging concessions, mining, and industrial plantations.
The push comes in the form of Change.org petition and a simultaneous on-the-ground campaign.
“The Leuser Ecosystem (Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser / KEL) has long been recognized as an irreplaceable ecosystem to the people of Aceh, providing approximately four million people with clean water for downstream irrigation, agriculture and food production,” states the petition. “For these reasons, to support the community, sustainable development, biodiversity and long-term health of Aceh as a great region, We would like to build on this international recognition by suggesting that [Aceh governor Zaini Abdullah] consider nominating KEL to become a new UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
“As a World Heritage Site, the Leuser Ecosystem would remain part of the legal territory of Aceh but UNESCO considers it in the interests of the international community to preserve each site,” the petition continues. “Therefore World Heritage status would give KEL special recognition and further support from the international community.”
Governor Zaini Abdullah is preparing to sign a revision of the Aceh’s spatial plan, which governs land use in the province. Heavy lobbying by mining, logging, and palm oil companies has resulted in large carve-outs for forest conversion. Environmentalists say the proposed changes would diminish important ecological services, increase the likelihood of flooding and landslides, and put endangered wildlife at greater risk. Leuser’s biodiversity led it to be recently cited in the journal Science as one of the world’s most irreplaceable protected areas.
Campaigners argue that the proposed revision is in fact illegal. Petition sponsor M. Nur, Director of WALHI Aceh (Friends of the Earth Aceh, said that as a “National Strategic Area with Protection Functions”, Leuser is off-limits to activities proposed in the new spatial plan.
“The draft Regulation proposed contravenes Aceh Governance Law No 11 / 2006, National Law No 26/2007 on Spatial Planning and Government Regulation No 26/2008, also on Spatial Planning,” Nur said in a statement. “If he still proceeds to sign it, we will have no choice but to seek a Judicial Review by the Supreme Court.”
Part of the greater Leuser ecosystem has already been lost to oil palm plantations. The Tripa peninsula was home to some 60,000 hectares of primary peat swamp forest in 1990 and some 3,000 orangutans. Conversion of the area for plantations has left only scraps of degraded forest and a small population of critically endangered orangutans. One of the small surviving patches of forest was last year cleared by PT Kallista Alam, a palm oil company, despite protection under a nation-wide moratorium on new conversion permits in peatlands and primary forests. That incident led to legal complaints and a court case against the company. A decision in that case is expected at the end of the month.
Aceh province, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Sumatran Forest and Google Earth.