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10 years following tsunami, Aceh aims to create its own, new, and totally preventable disaster

Recent deforestation for palm oil production within Aceh's Leuser Ecosystem
Recent deforestation for palm oil production within Aceh’s Leuser Ecosystem. Taken in May 2014 by Rhett A. Butler

In the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the devastating 2004 tsunami, that claimed the lives of around 200,000 of Aceh’s people, there is much concern that Aceh seems now to be deliberately steering itself towards yet another, entirely avoidable disaster. One that will harm yet more people and cause even more long-term economic damage to the province.

The concern is the province’s new spatial plan, legalized at provincial level as Qanun 19/2014. The National Government admits that it is seriously flawed, as evidenced by the response from the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Qanun (SK Mendagri 650-441), outlining at least 27 points that must be corrected or amended before the Spatial Plan could be accepted and approved by the central government and explicitly stating that if the corrections and amendments are not addressed, the Spatial Plan will be rejected.

Worryingly, the new spatial plan makes no mention whatsoever of the world renowned Leuser Ecosystem, an area listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as one of the “World’s Most Irreplaceable Places”. National laws prohibit any developments within it that damage the area’s environmental function. The Leuser Ecosystem is indeed globally revered. It is the only place on earth where the Sumatran rhinoceros, tiger, elephant and orangutan can all be found living side by side and the last realistic hope for the long-term survival of each.

However the Ecosystem was established not only for biodiversity conservation but also to protect the environmental services on which millions of Aceh’s people depend: reduction of flooding and drought, and maintenance of clean water supplies for homes and agriculture. Furthermore, the Leuser Ecosystem and Aceh’s forests store vast quantities of carbon. Destruction of these forests would therefore have major global consequences by contributing to climate change.

Forest near Jantho, Aceh. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.

As reported in the Aceh Terkini newspaper on September 18th, 2014, the Head of Bappeda, Aceh, confirmed that the Leuser Ecosystem isn’t in the Spatial Plan. The main reason given was that the Leuser Ecosystem as designated by the Presidential Decree of 1998 gave management authority to the National Government, so that the Aceh government couldn’t do anything. He stated that Aceh wanted to remove all land with production potential from the ecosystem first. In fact Aceh’s autonomy law (11/2006, Article 150) provides the Aceh government with authority to manage the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh, but obligates its protection from environmental damage.

However, Aceh’s Qanun 19, has not been based on any Strategic Environmental Analysis, even though this is legally required under National Law. Indeed, there are many existing rules and regulations for spatial planning that appear to have been largely ignored by the new plan. These include rules that forbid the conversion of slopes greater than 40 percent, protection of sensitive soil systems, and a host of others.

The Asian Development Bank’s Earthquake and Tsunami Emergency Support Project (ADB-ETESP) analyzed Aceh’s landscape according to these rules and produced maps that recommend much more protection than presently allowed in the Qanun 19. An expert team established by former Governor Irwandi Yusuf also conducted a detailed study of Aceh’s forests and found similar results. They concluded that very little forest was available for logging, mining or plantations without serious environmental and economic consequences and advocated that rehabilitating already degraded land and REforestation, not DEforestation, should be the economic focus in Aceh.

Even with the current levels of environmental damage, disasters such as flash floods and landslides are already common in Aceh, and incredibly costly. A World Bank report on the floods in Aceh in December 2006 spells this out. In less than 20 days, 757 villages in 46 sub districts in seven Acehnese districts were affected. 47 people were killed and 8,460 injured. Total damage and losses caused by the flooding were estimated at $210 million. A total of 4,412 homes needed replacing, 13,124 were heavily damaged and 24,874 were lightly damaged. Agriculture was particularly hard hit. A total of 2,353 ha of agricultural land required rehabilitation, 14,440 ha were heavily damaged and 7,610 ha were lightly damaged.

Illegal oil palm plantation within the Leuser Ecosystem.

The impact on small-scale farmers is worth special mention, though often ignored in media and governmental discussions. Small-scale farmers invest a large percentage of their annual income and savings into crops for the next year. When this investment is wiped out overnight, the consequences for these families is obviously devastating. Unable to reap their harvests, it effectively traps them in poverty for years to come.

Yet it seems little has been learned: according to compiled press reports, last month over 100,000 people in nearly 250 villages across Aceh were affected by flooding and landslides, and many bridges, roads and embankments destroyed or damaged.

The simple fact that Aceh’s Government completely omits to mention the existence of the Leuser Ecosystem in the Qanun 19 sends one very clear and indisputable message: they intend to chop down and convert it. And for anyone still not convinced of this, the current Governor Zaini Abdullah has already obligingly issued a new Governor’s Regulation, No 5, 2014, entitled “Guidelines and procedures for acquiring new concession permits within the Leuser Ecosystem”. The intention couldn’t really be any clearer, could it?

Aceh rainforest

And who will acquire these new concession permits? The majority will almost certainly be outsiders, and certainly not the ordinary folks of Aceh. While the new “concession holders” take their rich profits out of the province, the millions of ordinary Acehnese living in the coastal plains will suffer the bitter harvest of environmental disasters that result.

It seems obvious that in a province of high mountains, steep terrain and considerable dependence by Aceh’s people on intact forests for both their livelihoods and safety from disasters, the old perception of conservation being anti-economic development needs to be quickly thrown in the trash. It is dead and buried. Conservation is, for sure, against short-term unsustainable economic development. But aren’t we all? On the other hand, conservation is exactly the same as sustainable long-term economic development.

Given that the Qanun 19 is illegal, it will set a very dangerous precedent if central government accepts this provincial spatial plan that so obviously breaks national laws. Other provinces would be sure to try and follow the example; and Indonesia can say goodbye to any hope of getting even close to its international commitments on carbon emission reduction, and forest and wildlife conservation, while demands on the public for disaster relief and mitigation can be expected to spiral.

Data produced by researchers led by Matt Hansen found that Aceh lost just over 11,000 ha of forest cover between 2001 and 2012. While the rate of loss was low relative to other parts of Sumatra, it trended upward during the study period.

For Aceh, international support exists. Data exist. There is no real excuse not to produce a high quality spatial plan based on sound science that does not break Indonesian national laws and protects people from environmental disaster. But this will only happen if the current seriously flawed version is cancelled immediately.

Indonesia’s modern spatial planning rules insist that a thorough assessment of the geophysical and climatic realities of the landscape must underpin every spatial plan. These factors are the realities of nature and not politically negotiable. I am reminded of King Canute, the legendary king of Denmark, England, Norway, and Sweden, who sat on the seashore and commanded the tide to stop coming in. Of course it came in anyway, and he got wet feet! He did this to demonstrate to those sycophants around him that even kings are subservient to the powers of nature. Surely a lesson that many of those in power should learn.

Global Forest Watch map of forest loss and gain, land use, and forest cover in Aceh as of 2012.

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based conservation scientist.

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