Conservation news

Aceh official takes chainsaw to illegal oil palm trees

  • A district head in Indonesia has ordered a purge of illegal oil palm plantations in his jurisdiction.
  • On Tuesday, Hamdan Sati, the head of Aceh Tamiang regency, felled one of the trees himself.
  • Aceh Tamiang is located in Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, whose relatively pristine rainforests are starting to be eaten away by plantations.

As part of a campaign to eradicate illegal oil palm in an area of Aceh where elephants travel, a local official felled one of the rogue trees himself on Tuesday and planted a native specie in its place.

The man behind the chainsaw was Hamdan Sati, the head of Aceh Tamiang regency, a subdivision of Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh province on the island of Sumatra.

Last year, Hamdan ordered a purge of illegal oil palm trees in his regency, previously the site of a flash flood disaster so devastating it became known as the “second tsunami.” Tens of thousands of people were displaced.

“Let us remember,” Hamdan said in a speech, “the 2006 flash floods happened because of forest loss upstream. Now it is time to restore the forest.”

Hamdan Sati, the head of Aceh Tamiang regency, fells an illegal oil palm tree. Photo courtesy of Forum Konservasi Leuser
Hamdan Sati plants a forest tree where oil palm once grew. Photo courtesy of FKL

Aceh Tamiang is located within the Leuser Ecosystem, the only place on earth where the Sumatran rhino, tiger, elephant and orangutan all still coexist in the wild. The regency itself is home to an important elephant corridor.

Despite Leuser’s status as a nationally protected area, its forests are disappearing as oil palm spreads. One illegal plantation was shown by the Rainforest Action Network to be linked to the supply chain of Musim Mas Group, one of the largest palm oil traders. Refineries belonging to Wilmar International Ltd and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd are probably also guilty of buying oil from mills that source plantations inside Leuser, according to the U.S.-based NGO.

Hamdan, the Aceh Tamiang head, said some people had tried to discourage him from dismantling the illegal plantations because of their lucrative potential. “But we don’t want to keep them,” he announced. “We think the forest should be restored, because the forest is our legacy for future generations. We want to develop Aceh Tamiang without destroying the forest.”

Mahouts atop Sumatran elephants in Aceh. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Farwiza Farhan, the chairperson of HAkA, a local NGO, said she was impressed with Hamdan’s courage, wisdom and leadership.

“We need more leaders like this … who have a good understanding of how ecology and ecosystems function and can translate that understanding into policy and actions.”

Farwiza is involved in a brewing civil lawsuit against Aceh’s new spatial plan, passed by the Aceh government despite protests that it could set the semi-autonomous province on a path to ecological ruin. The plan neglects to mention the Leuser Ecosystem, effectively opening up vast new tracts of forested land for development.

Felled oil palm trees in Aceh Tamiang. Photo by Junaidi Hanafiah