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Indonesian sugar company poised to destroy half of island paradise’s forests

Aru Islands
Aru Islands. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

An Indonesian plantation company may be preparing to destroy up to half of the natural forests on Indonesia’s remote Aru Islands, reports Forest Watch Indonesia.

Analyzing land use plans for Aru, a famed biodiversity hotspot prominently featured in Alfred R. Wallace’s classic text, The Malay Archipelago, Forest Watch Indonesia found that local government officials have turned over 480,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) to 28 companies held by PT. Menara Group, a plantation conglomerate. 76 percent of the area is currently natural forest. Converting the area to sugar plantations would cut Aru’s forest cover by half, from 730,000 ha to 365,000 ha.

The impacts on Aru’s legendary biodiversity — on land and in the surrounding marine ecosystems — would be devastating.

“If the Menara Group moves ahead with their plans for sugarcane plantations and massive conversion of natural forest, it can be certain that biodiversity in both land and the waters of Aru Islands will become extinct”, said Forest Watch Indonesia’s Abu Meridian in a statement.

Most of the central part of the Aru islands would be stripped of trees and planted with sugar cane. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

“Conversion to [plantations] would destroy of habitat for various species endemic to the Wallacea region, including birds of paradise (Paradisaea apoda), tree kangaroos (Dendrolagus sp), black cockatoos (Prebosciger aterrimus), aru-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita eleonora), and cassowary (Casuarius casuarius),” added the group in the statement.

The concessions would also impact local communities — which have struggled in the past with ethnic and religious conflict exacerbated by the influx of transmigrants from other parts of Indonesia — by failing to recognize their traditional rights, according to Abdon Nababan, the Secretary-General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

“The concessions in question takes away the rights of indigenous communities over their territories,” Abdon said. “The livelihoods of local communities depend closely on existing natural resources and tenure security, and both will be destroyed. The local government of Maluku, through the existing land clearing plan, has denied communities continued benefit from fisheries and land use, both mainstays for Maluku community development.”

(Left) Merbau tree on Kobror island in West Aru District; (Right) Jeramani waterfall on the Kudarimar river in the Central District of Aru. Photos courtesy of Forest Watch Indonesia

Forest Watch Indonesia says the circumstances of the concession grants are suspect. The licenses and recommendations for use were put forth in 2010 by then regent Teddy Tengko. The permits were upheld by then Governor of Maluku, Karel Albert Ralahalu in 2011.

Forest Watch Indonesia says the PT. Menara Group’s plantation permits were approved before obtaining required environmental clearance.

“While this is in clear violation of Environmental Law No 32/2009, 19 of the 28 companies have already gained approval from the Ministry of Forestry,” said the group, which is urging environmentalists to rally to block the scheme. A petition has been launched and bloggers have started using a #SaveAru hash tag on Twitter in support of Aru’s forests and communities.

But Forest Watch Indonesia’s Abu told Mongabay-Indonesia that time for action may be short.

“Logging has already begun,” said Abu. “We were very disappointed because despite public opposition, the government is allowing this to proceed.”

While Indonesia presently has a moratorium on new concessions across some 14 million hectares of previously unprotected lands, the moratorium has an exemption for sugar cane.

Click image to enlarge. Click here for original PDF version.

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