- The petition asks Indonesia’s president to cancel a controversial spatial plan that would open the Leuser Ecosystem to industrial incursions.
- Leonardo DiCaprio’s philanthropic foundation recently gave NGOs $3.2 million to protect Leuser.
- Leuser’s pristine forests are only place on earth where rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans coexist in the wild.
Leonardo DiCaprio has endorsed a Change.org petition asking Indonesia’s top leadership to protect the Leuser Ecosystem, one of Southeast Asia’s last great swaths of rainforest.
Several times in recent days, the Oscar winner and environmental activist has exhorted his Twitter followers to sign the petition, which asks Indonesian president Joko Widodo, Aceh governor Zaini Abdullah and others to revoke the province’s new spatial plan, which makes no mention of Leuser and thus exposes its pristine forests and tiger habitat to industrial incursions.
Adrian Brody, another Hollywood star, has also endorsed the petition, which has more than 55,000 signatures and counting. A recent visit to Leuser by both actors stirred controversy in Indonesia, with officials threatening to ban DiCaprio from the archipelago. They accused him of running a “black campaign” to discredit the palm oil industry, whose rapid expansion is eating away at the country’s vast forests.
“DiCaprio’s message in the tweet was to stand with the people of Aceh,” Farwiza Farhan, chairperson of Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA), an NGO, told Tempo magazine. “Hopefully, this [petition] will help open up a new dialogue with the government.”
Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra has seen some of the greatest deforestation in recent decades, but Aceh’s forests have largely been spared in part because of a 30-year-long separatist war that impeded the advance of industry until its conclusion in 2005. At the end of 2013, though, the Aceh government passed the new spatial plan, which makes no mention of Leuser, a nationally protected area. Governor Abdullah’s administration has argued that the westernmost province’s special status gives it the right to zone its territory how it likes, regardless of Jakarta’s impositions.
Many conservationists and Aceh citizens have spoken out against the plan, and a coalition of indigenous leaders and activists recently filed a class-action lawsuit in Jakarta, claiming the plan is illegal. They say that its passing flouted procedure and that officials failed to meaningfully consult the public as required by law, and demand that Leuser be recognized in the plan so as to prevent new logging, mining and oil palm developments.
Western governments are also involved, with the EU in particular lobbying Aceh to revise the plan. But development in Leuser has already started, with some roads under construction in previously inaccessible areas that conservationists fear will now be targeted by illegal loggers and poachers. Leuser is billed as the only place on earth where rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans coexist in the wild; each species teeters on the brink of extinction.
A human catastrophe also looms. Most of Aceh’s population lives on the western and eastern coasts, flanking a central highlands where major rivers originate. Upstream deforestation has already caused severe lowland flooding, especially in Aceh Tamiang district, which was hit in 2006 with a deluge so devastating it was termed a “second tsunami,” after the disaster that had struck Aceh in 2004.
“We need to preserve these forests for our grandchildren,” Abu Kari Aman Jerum, a farmer from the Gayo highlands in Central Aceh, told Mongabay in Jakarta. He said his people were already fighting off advancements by a mining company, PT Wanyang Mining Gayo Indo.