Conservation news

Company poised to destroy critical orangutan habitat in breach of Indonesia’s moratorium

  • Sungai Putri is a beautiful natural forest area in West Kalimantan that is home to between 750 and 1750 orangutans.
  • This makes it the third largest population of this Critically Endangered species in the province. Sungai Putri has extensive deep peat areas, up to 14.5 meters deep in places.
  • A company named PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa apparently plans to clear more than half of their license area for conversion into an industrial tree plantation.
Global Forest Watch image of Sungai Putri, including recent forest cover loss (pink and gold), with Urthcast images as a base layer. Courtesy of World Resources Institute.
Global Forest Watch image of Sungai Putri, including recent forest cover loss (pink and gold), with Urthcast images as a base layer. Courtesy of World Resources Institute.

Try to get your head around this one. There is this beautiful natural forest area in West Kalimantan, called Sungai Putri, which roughly translates as the River of the Princess. At about 57,000 hectares (141,000 acres), it is a sizable piece of forest enough to provide a home to between 750 and 1750 orangutans. This makes it the third largest population of this Critically Endangered species in the province. Sungai Putri has extensive deep peat areas, up to 14.5 meters (48 feet) deep in places. And it is covered with forest. Given that the Indonesian government is committed to protecting peat, forests, and orangutans one would assume that this area is safe. Well, as it turns out, it is not.

I was in the area in October 2016 and some local people in the area told me there is a plan for much of the forest area to be cut down. A company named PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa apparently plans to clear more than half of their license area for conversion into an industrial tree plantation. This is unusual because when they obtained the IUPHHK-HA or HPH license for selectively logging in June 2008, and that license cannot be used for plantation development (Hutan Tanaman Industri). The company would need to give back the existing HPH license to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and then submit a new proposal for a HTI license before they can clear the land. I don’t know whether that has happened but in 2014, the indicative map for forest use of West Kalimantan still showed the entire license area as designated for permanent natural forest management, not conversion to plantation. What has happened since then?

There is more. Based on what people told me there is apparently a plan to build a drainage canal from north to south of the area for which some work has reportedly started. Wasn’t there a national commitment to stop draining and burning peat land areas? I am confused. Hopefully all these rumors are wrong. I tried to reach out the company, calling office numbers and mobile phone numbers of the company and several of its senior managers, but could not get through to anyone – all lines apparently disconnected, and none of my conservation or business colleagues could give me an email address.

The government of Indonesia has stated its international and national commitments to reducing carbon emissions and deforestation, protecting and restoring peat swamp forests through the Peatland Restoration Agency established by the President, and stabilizing all remaining wild orangutan populations. If those are the commitments, how can they then license the apparent destruction of forest, peat and orangutans?

Otong, a half-blind orangutan in the Protect Our Borneo orangutan sanctuary exemplifies the fate that could await Sungai Putri’s orangutans if common sense and legal rules do not prevail. Photo by Björn Vaughn.

A 2016 satellite image confirms findings from a detailed 2007 vegetation study in Sungai Putri that about 58 percent of the 48,440 ha license area remains covered in tall peat swamp forest and the remainder in medium height swamp forest, heath forest, and hill forest. Those estimates are still pretty accurate. When I was recently standing on a hill overlooking the area, I can say that for sure this is an extensive forest area, a bit damaged and degraded near the edges but certainly with tall forest in most of the remainder. So, why then should it be converted?

That question is even more pertinent because not only is the area forested, but it also sits on very deep peat. A few years ago peat measurements were taken, when the area was assessed by Fauna and Flora International (FFI) for its carbon sequestration potential. At the deepest part of the dome, the peat is 14.5 meters deep, with large areas deeper than 3 meters. Indonesian laws such as the Government Regulation no. 71 of 2014 do not allow peat development in areas with more than 3 meters peat, so someone better check some peat depths in Sungai Putri to see what is really happening on the ground.

A further reason for concern is threatened species like orangutans. The most recent orangutan survey for the 57,000 ha Sungai Putri block estimated up to 1,750 orangutans. Orangutans will not survive in areas where all forest is cleared. It is safe to say that if conversion plans go ahead, some 500 to 1,000 orangutans will likely die or have to be rescued. The Indonesian Orangutan Forum FORINA recently recognized this as the largest population in the region and if these orangutans lose their habitat they have nowhere else to go. Indonesia’s current national action plan for orangutans aims to stabilize all wild populations by 2017, and destroying the habitat of one of the largest remaining populations is incompatible with that.

Global Forest Watch Commodities showing PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa’s concession in Sungai Putri. Courtesy of World Resources Institute
Global Forest Watch Commodities showing PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa’s concession in Sungai Putri, including the concession area and peat depth. Courtesy of World Resources Institute

On my recent visit to the area I was accompanied by a well-known Norwegian professor who specializes in tropical forests. He shared my concerns about what was happening. “These developments seem to violate Indonesia’s own legal processes not to mention its international commitments”, he said. “Claims about absence of forest, peat and endangered species – here and elsewhere – clearly need to be assessed and verified in a transparent manner. Those who dispute the conditions can provide their data”. I agree with his assessment and call on the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Peatland Restoration Agency to investigate on what basis various licenses have been given out.

Improved management is needed in Sungai Putri. Illegal logging is rampant as are fires. According to the Global Fire Watch data, in 2015 alone, some 250 fires occurred on the margins of Sungai Putri. The risk of more fires would only increase if Sungai Putri was drained and deforested as planned. There are also social conflicts. Some people welcome the development of the peatland area because of the potential employment opportunities and the possibility to get compensated by the company for their lost traditional land uses. Others object. The latest science, however, suggest that development of coastal peatlands can never be sustainable. So what management needs to be put in place to keep local people happy and prevent further environmental degradation?

This fire burning across peatland in Sebangau in 2015 offers a preview of the fate that could befall Sungai Putri if it is drained and degraded. Courtesy of the Borneo Nature Foundation.

For a start, proper zoning of the area is needed based on the accurate measurement of peat depths and forest cover, and assessment of local land claims. Based on this, the integration of Sungai Putri into a broader sustainable landscape program can be developed. This ensures compliance with Indonesian laws.

In 2011, Sungai Putri was already proposed by FFI as a Restoration Ecosystem concession with a business model based on carbon trading. At the time this proposal appears to have been rejected, because of a conflict with the existing license. It might be time to revisit these ideas to see how national development and conservation objectives can be reconciled in a legally appropriate manner. It might even be possible to develop commercial plantations on the fringes of the natural forest to stabilize the land use and keep out fires and illegal logging. Good management is key.

There are solutions that allow Indonesia to fulfill its development and poverty alleviations objectives, but these require careful planning, and close collaboration between the private sector, governments, non-governmental groups, and local communities. Now is the time to initiate that collaboration and find the sustainable and equitable solutions that Indonesia aspires to.

No one phrased these local development dilemmas more accurately than the renowned local Dayak poet Yohanes Terang, in his poem titled “Primates”:

Orangutan, primate pride of the world
Dweller of the jungles of Kalimantan and Sumatra
Orangutan, freely living in nature
Their habitat as yet unspoiled by uncompassionate man
Now all has changed, their homes torn to shreds
Ruined and ravaged by disasters brought by human greed
Plantations, mining, forest fires, illegal logging, wildlife trade
Constantly haunting them
Father and mother butchered
Their children kept as spectacles for the poor who have no money and possessions
Today we show promising signs
To maintain, protect and find solutions
So that destruction is averted
And we no longer need be angry and reproachful

(translated by the author, with permission from Yohanes Terang)

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative. Follow him on Twitter via @emeijaard.

Editor’s note: The editor introduced an error in the title of this piece when first posted: “Palm oil company poised to destroy …”. PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa has a timber concession, not an oil palm concession. Accordingly, that error was corrected within an hour of posting with “Company poised to destroy …”. Mongabay regrets the error.