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Aceh’s priceless Leuser Ecosystem still shrinking as oil palm spreads

  • New RAN report identifies nine “conflict palm oil culprits” in Aceh Timur regency.
  • The report also finds evidence of new clearance in the peat swamp regions of Sumatra’s western coast, including in Tripa.
  • RAN asks for more from the companies in terms of the independence and transparency of their grievance systems and traceability progress reports.

[This article has been updated to reflect Wilmar’s November 19 response to a Mongabay inquiry of November 16.]

Lowland forests and carbon-rich peat bogs, the most vital landscapes in Southeast Asia’s last great swath of intact rainforest, are the most at risk of clearing by oil palm firms.

This according to a new report by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) on industrial expansion in the 2.6 million hectare block of Sumatran forests and peatlands known as the Leuser Ecosystem, the only place on earth where Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants all still coexist.

The report builds on an earlier RAN study of November 2014 which exposed links between Leuser’s destruction and oil palm expansion in what has been designated by Indonesia’s central government as a national strategic area because of its environmental importance.

The 2014 study traced palm fruit grown on Leuser’s legally questionable, if not downright illegal, plantations to a mill operated by Musim Mas Group, and warned that Wilmar International Ltd and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd might also be in danger of sourcing fruit from Leuser. The “Big Three” companies together control more than half of the global palm oil trade, and each has also signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), committing them to purge their supply chains of deforestation, peatlands conversion and rights abuses.

The new report identifies “conflict palm oil culprits” in Aceh Timur regency, whose lowland forests “are considered the world’s best remaining habitat for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant,” and the Tripa, Kluet and Singkil peat swamp regions, which are also biodiversity hotspots.

A captive Sumatran tiger. The species still live in the wild in the Aceh's Leuser Ecosystem. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A captive Sumatran tiger. The species still live in the wild in the Aceh’s Leuser Ecosystem. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In Aceh Timur, the study looks at nine firms, six of which are expanding into the remaining lowland forests and one of which is clearing without a permit, satellite imagery shows. The other two are a license away from being able to start clearing, according to the report.

“The ‘Big Three’ traders’ refineries, located at the nearby ports near Medan, source crude palm oil from the mills that process fruit grown in Aceh Timur,” Gemma Tillack, RAN’s chief agribusiness campaigner, told Mongabay. “This means all three traders remain at risk of sourcing from these companies.”

She added, “None of the three traders have published comprehensive lists of their supplying plantations, they have only listed sourcing mills.”

One of the nine firms is certain to have at least previously supplied Wilmar and Musim Mas. Eariler this year, Greenomics-Indonesia, an NGO, documented forest destruction in Aceh Timur by PT Aloer Timur, a subsidiary of Mopoli Raya, a known supplier to the two companies. In response to the findings, Wilmar and Musim Mas suspended buying from Mopoli Raya. Wilmar gave it a deadline to stop clearing or face a permanent termination of their relationship.

The RAN report, however, says it is not clear from the grievance dashboard on Wilmar’s website whether it has gone ahead and severed ties with Mopoli. Wilmar did not respond to a request for comment from Mongabay. [Update: Wilmar wrote to Mongabay on November 19 that it “permanently ceased” buying from Mopoli on July 9 because of the company’s “continual noncompliance” with Wilmar’s policy.]

In the peat regions, meanwhile, the RAN study presents evidence of new clearance over 70 hectares in concessions held by PT Surya Panen Subur (SPS).

“This evidence shows that either PT SPS is continuing to clear forested peatlands — an action that is illegal due to the depth of peatlands in this area — or has failed to adequately monitor its concession and engage with other parties that are developing the land into palm oil plantations.”

The clearing has gone on despite international scrutiny on Tripa, which some call “the orangutan capital of the world.” Earlier this year, oil palm company PT Kallista Alam was given an unprecedented fine of millions of dollars in connection with the fires burning in its concession in Tripa; the flames were allegedly used to clear the peat for a plantation. Several of its managers face criminal charges.

The Tripa peat swamp region on Sumatra's western coast. Image courtesy of the Tripa Rescue Team Coalition
The Tripa peat swamp region on Sumatra’s western coast. Image courtesy of the Tripa Rescue Team Coalition

More progress needed

In the wake of continuing deforestation in Leuser, RAN’s latest report asks for more from the companies in terms of the independence and transparency of their grievance systems and traceability progress reports.

“IPOP must also develop an independent grievance mechanism that aligns with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights criteria for non-judicial grievance mechanisms and take immediate action to resolve outstanding grievances in its members global supply chains,” the report says.

RAN also calls on the IPOP firms to work with suppliers and governments to establish a moratorium on the destruction of Leuser’s forests and peatlands. A spatial plan passed by the Aceh provincial government in 2013 neglects to mention the nationally mandated Leuser Ecosystem and so treats certain tracts of land within it as candidates for industrial expansion.

An alliance of concerned citizens in Aceh has announced its intention to file a citizen lawsuit against the central government in Jakarta for failing to force the province to revise the plan. The coalition also intends to sue the government of Aceh province, which has special autonomy as a result of the peace agreement reached at the end of a decades-long separatist conflict in the early 2000s.

“From the scale of ongoing destruction in these critical areas … it is clear we risk losing the Leuser Ecosystem forever,” the RAN report says.

“The time for collective action is now.”

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