- Officials in Sumatra have agreed to build a bridge linking the main island to the archipelago of Bangka-Belitung, part of wider efforts to boost economic development in the region.
- The starting point for the planned bridge will be the Air Sugihan ecosystem, which is home to at least 148 wild and critically endangered Sumatran elephants.
- Conservationists say there needs to be a science-based approach to infrastructure development in the region to minimize threats to the elephant population.
- The Air Sugihan ecosystem was as recently as the 1970s home to another iconic species, the Sumatran tiger, before a government-sponsored migration program led to a boom in the human population and the clearing of large swaths of land for agriculture.
OGAN KOMERING ILIR, Indonesia — Officials in Sumatra plan to build a billion-dollar bridge to the Bangka-Belitung archipelago off the island’s east coast, but conservationists warn it threatens a key habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran elephant.
The governments of the provinces of South Sumatra and Bangka-Belitung officially agreed on the Bahtera Sriwijaya bridge project on Sept. 17, hailing it as a key step in the economic development of the region. Construction is expected to begin in 2024, with the total cost of the project earmarked at 15 trillion rupiah ($1 billion). The 13.5-kilometer (8.4-mile) highway and bridge will link Ogan Komering Ilir district on the Sumatran mainland to South Bangka district.
But the proposed site for the bridge’s starting point in Ogan Komering Ilir has raised concerns among conservationists, who point out that it sits in the Air Sugihan peat ecosystem. This area is home to at least 148 wild Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus), according to the South Sumatra provincial conservation agency.
Yusuf Bahtimi, a researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who has studied the peatlands and elephants of the eastern coast of Sumatra for years, said there needs to be a science-based strategy to safeguard the ecosystem while still allowing for economic development.
Short of that, he said, “[i]t’s very likely that we will lose the elephants in this landscape in the future.”
As recently as the 1970s, the eastern coast of South Sumatra was a biodiversity haven, home not just to elephants but also Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae), and largely free of human settlements and plantations.
Air Sugihan subdistrict spans nearly 260,000 hectares, and today it’s a hotspot for the pulpwood plantations that feed giant paper mills. There are 19 villages in the subdistrict, established by migrants brought over in the 1980s under a government program to resettle people from the overpopulated island of Java to other, less-developed parts of Indonesia. With their arrival came small-scale farming of oil palms and food crops. The subdistrict’s population today stands at 35,000.
As of 2004, a third of Ogan Komering Ilir’s total area — a region nearly four times the size of London — had been cleared for pulpwood plantations. Wildfires have also been reported annually in the Sugihan landscape — a common problem in areas where carbon-rich peatlands have been razed and drained for planting, rendering the ground highly combustible.
The expansion of both the human population and the area of land converted for agriculture has sparked conflict with the wild elephants. In the most recent recorded case, a soldier was killed trying to keep an elephant out of an oil palm farm in March.
Ahmad Furqoni, secretary of the Air Sugihan subdistrict office said the bridge project would be an important part of the region’s development.
“We believe that Air Sugihan in the next five years will develop into a city,” he said. “The current problems are only damaged roads and [lack of] clean water. If these two problems are resolved, the infrastructure development will take off rapidly … especially with the news of the development of the Bahtera bridge.”
There’s also a plan to connect an existing road — currently used mainly to transport pulp and paper products by PT OKI Pulp & Paper Mills, a subsidiary of Asia Pulp & Paper (APP Sinar Mas) — to the bridge. That road, which the paper company plans to upgrade, already cuts through peat and mangrove forests and poses its own set of threats to the ecosystem.
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