- The Harapan forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is teeming with frog species, one of which was just described last year.
- These amphibians are threatened by a coal-trucking road that the government has approved to be built right through the forest.
- Environmental activists have pushed back against the project, calling on the government to either suspend the project or approve alternative routes that would bypass the forest altogether or cut through a less pristine portion of it.
- The local government has promised to study the project’s impact, but activists point out the final decision lies with the central government, which gave the approval and has still not addressed their concerns.
JAMBI, Indonesia — Armed with a flashlight, 43-year-old Musadat walks slowly through the thick and dense Harapan forest, one of the last remaining expanses of lowland tropical rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Musadat suddenly stops and carefully looks around. He then switches off his flashlight and walks quickly to a nearby Phoebe tree. There, he finds a cinnamon frog (Nyctixalus pictus) and a frilled tree frog (Kurixalus appendiculatus).
Deeper into the forest, he finds a puddle — a watering hole for frogs and other animals.
By the end of the day, Musadat has come across a number of other frogs, none of them much bigger than a Lego brick.
Frogs are a common sight in the 76,900-hectare (190,000-acre) Harapan forest, which is home to 55 frog species out of the 77 found in the whole of Sumatra. It also hosts more iconic species such as the critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) and Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus).
But this treasure trove of biodiversity, 1,350 known species and counting, is under threat from a road project that the Indonesian government has approved to connect a coal mine to a power plant.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry signed off on the project, proposed by coal miner PT Marga Bara Jaya (MBJ), in October 2019.
The approval gives MBJ control of 424 hectares (1,048 acres) of the Harapan forest. The company plans to build an 88-kilometer (55-mile) road, a third of which will run through the forest, to truck coal from its mine in Musi Rawas district to power plants in Musi Banyuasin district, both in South Sumatra province.
In October 2020, the ministry shored up the plan even further by designating almost the entire 424 hectares as suitable for the purpose of road construction.
The deforestation that would occur as a result of this project would significantly reduce the survival prospects of the Harapan forest’s frogs, said Amir Hamidy, a herpetologist from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Amir, who was part of a group of researchers who last year described a new species of frog, Micryletta sumatrana, from the forest, said the clearing of vegetation will raise the temperature and reduce the humidity, making the habitat less suitable for frogs.
“If there’s a change in the habitat, then it will surely affect amphibians,” he said.
Construction work for the road hasn’t begun yet, according to an activist coalition called the People’s Forum of South Sumatra-Jambi Forest Rescuer (FORMAPHSI). But MBJ has all the permits it needs from the environment ministry, so it’s only a matter of time before construction starts, said FORMAPHSI South Sumatra coordinator Adiosyafri.
“Based on the 2019 ministerial regulation on the guidance for borrowing and using forest areas, actually MBJ has completed all the administrative requirements,” he told Mongabay. “So they can start [right away].”
Despite the road project being greenlit, environmental activists continue to seek its suspension.
In October, FORMAPHSI sent a letter to President Joko Widodo, asking him to order the environment ministry to reroute the road project outside the Harapan forest.
The letter included a map with alternative routes marked out that FORMAPHSI said would pose less of a risk to natural forests in the area.
The coalition also staged a series of protests outside local government offices, including the South Sumatra forestry department and the governor’s office.
“The presence of the mining road that dissects the Harapan forest is a threat to the ecosystem there,” protest coordinator Amrullah said at the rally outside the governor’s office in December 2020. “That’s why we ask the governor to send a letter to the environment ministry to cancel the mining road.”
Edward Juliartha, an official at the governor’s office, told the protesters that the local government would form a team to study the impact of the coal road.
“If in the field [we] find many negative impacts from MBJ’s permit, then the provincial government of South Sumatra would issue a recommendation to cancel the permit to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry,” he said. “The government will involve FORMAPHSI in the inventory and the study of the coal road’s permit.”
Adiosyafri said there’s little the local government can do, since the authority to cancel the project lies with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which issued the permit in the first place.
“What the local government said was just rhetoric, and we understand that because they don’t have the authority,” he said. “What they could do is maybe strengthen the monitoring.”
If the central government isn’t willing to cancel the project, the least it can do is to reroute the project to avoid cutting right through the Harapan forest, Adiosyafri said.
An alternative route that would completely avoid the Harapan forest would cut through a neighboring logging concession held by the Sentosa Group. If this is rejected, a compromise route would run partly through Sentosa’s concession and the Harapan forest, according to Adiosyafri.
The affected portion of the forest here is relatively degraded, with 40% natural forest cover.
The current route that the government has approved lies in an area of the Harapan forest with good natural forest cover of about 70%, Adiosyafri said.
But the central government has not responded to the activists’ repeated pleas.
“To date, our letters [to the government] haven’t been answered,” Adiosyafri said. “So we suspect there’s a huge scenario in the central government for investment there [in the Harapan forest]. So far, there hasn’t been any signal that the government would change its mind.”
The environment ministry unit responsible for approving the permit did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment on the matter.
This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Dec. 12, 2020.
Banner image: A frilled tree frog (Kurixalus appendiculatus) in the Harapan forest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.
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