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Is Aru safe? Indonesia suspends plan to clear half the islands’ forests

A plan to clear half of Aru’s forest cover for sugar cane has been suspended, but the island paradise is still not safe from large-scale deforestation, according to a report from Mongabay-Indonesia.

Located in the eastern part of Indonesia and under the jurisdiction of the Maluku provincial administration, Aru is comprised of 95 low-lying islands with a total land area of 8,563 square kilometers (3,306 square miles) and a human population of 84,000. Because of its many unique species, Alfred Russel Wallace prominently featured this famed biodiversity hotspot in his classic text, The Malay Archipelago, declaring the native great bird-winged butterfly (Ornithoptera poseidon) to be “one of the most magnificent insects the world contains.”

Aru took the spotlight last March after Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) reported their findings 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.

The permit would allow the company to cut-down half of Aru’s forest cover, reducing it from 730,000 to 365,000 hectares.

Aru Islands. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

The plan elicited strong reactions from local people, green activists and even celebrities, and its feasibility was questioned by government officials. On April 10, Minister of Forestry, Zulkifli Hasan, was quoted by Ekuatorial in Jakarta as saying that based on survey and research, the steeps slopes of the Aru islands made them unsuitable for sugar cane plantations.

However, the demonstrated opposition to the plan does not automatically secure the islands from being cleared.
“To prevent the areas from clearing in the future, there should be legal efforts to change the function of the forest areas; from convertible production areas to protection areas or conservation areas,” said Elfian Effendi, Executive Director of Greenomics. “If not, the clearing of the forest areas is only [a matter of time].”

Effendi said that although the permits have been revoked in principle, threats to the Aru islands still exist, given the fact that the forests allocated for sugar plantations are still legally classified as convertible production areas.
In early 2010, Teddy Tengko, then Bupati (head of the district) of Aru, issued principle and location permits that released 480,000 hectares of forest from the holdings of the 28 companies at comprise the PT Menara Group. In July 2011, Karel Albert Ralahalu, then Maluku Governor, issued a recommendation for forest release that strengthened the permits granted by Tengko.

Zenzi Suhadi, Forest and Large Plantations Campaigner of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said it should be made clear which permit was being revoked.

“Is it the sugar cane plantation permit or the forest release decree [which is being revoked]?” said Suhadi to on April 14, adding that a decree on forest release for 1.6 million hectares in Maluku has been issued. “The ministry [of forestry] should be firm in the decree that these forest areas [being released] are for local people or community to manage. There should not be any concessions for companies.”

(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.

Suhadi fears that if permits were being granted to companies rather than to local people or communities, they would apply the permits to oil palm or pulp and paper plantations that would eventually destroy Aru’s natural forests. “We can’t let that happen,” he said firmly.
On Feb 6, 2014, Acting Maluku Governor, Saut Sitomorang, gave the green light for sugar cane plantation development under claims that the Aru islands consist only of reed plants and that investors should be given the chance to manage them.

This prompted strong reactions, particularly from local people who refused to see their forest areas turned into sugar cane plantations. As many as 117 villages in the Aru islands are campaigning against the plan. Maluku-born singer and songwriter, Glenn Fredly, also took a stand to save his ancestors’ land by setting-up a petition to the government of Indonesia to save the islands from environmental destruction. As of this writing, the petition has managed to gather 15,048 signatures, surpassing its 15,000 target — and is still growing.

The permit, which would allow plantation developers to take control of 500,000 hectares of land, threatens the existence of at least 90 negeri (administrative land divisions). Not only that, the conversion, as stated by FWI, would destroy the habitat for many species that are 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 cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius).

Abdon Nababan, Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), welcomed the ministry’s action to revoke the permit, but stated it should be made clearer exactly how much of the area is covered by the revocation.

“It is also not clear whether this cancellation only [concerns] sugar cane plantations or other commodities, for instance palm oil,” said Nababan, adding that there was possibility for other commodity industries to reach Aru if the minister excludes only sugar cane from the islands’ landscape.

In a previous statement, Nababan underlined that conversion to plantations would take away the rights of indigenous communities over their territories, as the livelihoods of local communities are dependent on existing natural resources. In short, these communities were being denied the use of their own land by their own government.

Meanwhile, Heru Prasetyo, head of Indonesia National REDD+, said the Aru islands conversion plan and was being discussed at the President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4), the “watchdog” for government performance. Prasetyo said that even though the area is not one of the provinces overseen by REDD+, they are advising the president on the issue.

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