Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah has written to the Environment and Forestry Ministry in Jakarta, asking for part of the core zone of Mount Leuser National Park to be rezoned for geothermal development.
The plan is for a company owned by Turkish venture capitalist Emin Hitay to explore the area for geothermal resources. Hitay intends to invest billions of dollars in geothermal projects across Indonesia.
Abdullah argued that the project would support President Joko Widodo’s goal of adding a 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity to Indonesia’s electrical grid.
Environmentalists object to the plan because they say it will threaten endangered wildlife and harm local livelihoods.
The governor of Indonesia’s Aceh province is moving forward with a plan to rezone part of Mount Leuser National Park for geothermal development, despite opposition from conservationists who say the project threatens key rhino and orangutan populations.
Last week, Governor Zaini Abdullah sent an official letter to the forestry minister in Jakarta asking that a section of the park’s “core zone” be changed to a “utilization zone” so that a Turkish company may develop geothermal there. The utilization zone would still be part of the park.
The company, PT Hitay Panas Energy, is an arm of Hitay Holdings, an investment group founded and chaired by Emin Hitay, one of Turkey’s richest men.
Hitay has some history in Indonesia. He served as the archipelagic country’s honorary consul in Istanbul, and chairs the Turkish-Indonesian Business Council. He also tattooed onto his back a large image of the Garuda Pancasila, Indonesia’s coat of arms, in a profession of affinity for the Southeast Asian nation.
Hitay plans to invest billions of dollars in nine geothermal projects across Indonesia’s main western islands of Sumatra and Java.
Mount Leuser National Park is part of the wider Leuser Ecosystem, a nationally protected area constituting one of Southeast Asia’s last great swaths of intact rainforest. But the Aceh government’s 2013 spatial plan makes no mention of Leuser, and local officials have argued that the province has a right to develop the area. Aceh fought a long separatist war that ended in 2005 and enjoys special autonomy as a result of the peace agreement.
The spatial plan is now the subject of a citizen lawsuit filed by Acehnese activists and indigenous groups who want Jakarta to strike it down. The EU has also approached Governor Abdullah’s administration about revising the plan, but those efforts have yet to bear fruit. Even Hollywood actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has spoken out about the plan, endorsing a Change.org petition for its cancellation after a recent visit to the forests of Aceh.
In his letter to the forestry minister, Governor Abdullah stressed that the “green” geothermal project would support President Joko Widodo’s plan to add 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity to Indonesia’s overstretched power grid by 2019.
Conservationists counter that it would harm local livelihoods and the environment.
“The fact is that Mount Leuser National Park has been continuously degraded by illegal logging and illegal plantations,” said Muhammad Nur, head of the Aceh branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), a national NGO. “Granting an exploration permit in the core zone will exacerbate the damage, and building a road there will facilitate access for timber thieves.”
The geothermal plan will harm water quality, he added. Walhi has sent the forestry ministry its own letter rejecting the project.
Bustami, a resident of Gayo Lues district, where the project would be located, said there was great potential for development in Gayo Lues that didn’t harm the environment.
“Hydropower has not yet been developed, while there are dozens, even hundreds of points that can be utilized,” he said.
Noviar Andayani, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s country director in Indonesia, said after a presentation delivered by the park’s management authority in June that the area should remain a core zone because of its high biodiversity.
Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project, said that even if the forests next to the geothermal site were left untouched, the 1,000-1,500 Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) living to the west and north of the proposed site would be threatened by it.
“Roads would fragment the animal population there,” he said. “It would be dangerous if this happens.” Only 14,600 Sumatran orangutans, a critically endangered species, are thought to remain.
Widodo Ramono, director of the Indonesian Rhino Foundation (YABI), said the project would likely harm Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in the area. Only around 100 individuals are thought to remain.
Aceh government spokesperson Frans Delian confirmed on Wednesday that the letter had been sent.
The proposed change would see over 18,000 hectares rezoned, according to the June presentation, delivered to forestry ministry and local officials.
“In the past, the core zone could not be contested. It’s different now — we’re also required to manage the area to produce non-tax revenue,” the park’s chief, Andi Basyrul, said at the presentation in Medan, Sumatra’s largest city.
Junaidi Hanafiah. “Pegiat Lingkungan: Menteri LHK Harus Tolak Surat Gubernur Aceh Mengenai Revisi Zona Inti TNGL.” Mongabay-Indonesia. 25 August 2016.