Environment

Environmentalists sound alarm over proposed rezoning of Leuser wildlife corridor

An aerial view of the Leuser Ecosystem, 19th November 2013. Photo: Paul HiltonEnvironmental groups in Indonesia have called on the country’s forestry and environment ministry to reject plans to construct a geothermal plant in one of the world’s most precious areas of rainforest.

A Turkish company, Hitay Holdings, wants to build the plant in the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.

The governor of Aceh, Zaini Abdullah, has written to the Minister of Environment and Forestry to request the rezoning of nearly 8,000 hectares of forest that should be protected; a rezoning that environmentalists say will result in the destruction of a vital habitat corridor.

The “Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra” site covers 2.5 million hectares and comprises three national parks: Gunung Leuser, Kerinci Seblat, and Bukit Barisan Selatan.

UNESCO says the site “holds the greatest potential for long-term conservation of the distinctive and diverse biota of Sumatra, including many endangered species”.

The area is home to some 10,000 plant species, including 17 endemic genera; more than 200 mammal species; and about 580 bird species, of which 465 are resident and 21 are endemic, UNESCO states.

“Of the mammal species, 22 are Asian, not found elsewhere in the archipelago, and 15 are confined to the Indonesian region, including the endemic Sumatran orangutan. The site also provides biogeographic evidence of the evolution of the island.”

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Gunung Leuser National Park lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, which is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild.

The Ecosystem straddles the border of Aceh and the neighbouring province of North Sumatra. It has been described as one of the world’s most irreplaceable areas and, given its designation as a National Strategic Area, it should be protected from development.

panut-with-orangutanThe director of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre, Panut Hadisiswoyo (pictured left), said: “The major forest clearance that would be needed for this project, which includes roads and lots of additional associated infrastructure, and the potential for massive widespread encroachment that inevitably follows such projects once access is opened up, could easily condemn these species to the history books.

“These species are already at serious risk of extinction in our lifetime. Even minor disturbance threatens their survival.”

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The planned site of the geothermal plant is in the Kappi Plateau region, which is the core of the only remaining major habitat corridor connecting the eastern and western forest areas in the Gunung Leuser National Park.

The area is currently designated as a Core Area (Zona Inti) of the Gunung Leuser National Park. In order for the geothermal project to be legally permissible, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry would have to downgrade the area’s status and designate it a Utilisation Zone (Zona Pemanfataan).

The local environmental groups warn that if the areas is rezoned, and the project is allowed to go ahead, it will have major consequences for the survival of several critically endangered species that depend on the corridor for movement and reproduction.

Hitay Holdings commissioned a study at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta and, in their report, published on December 8, the UGM researchers recommended that the area be reclassified.

The local environmental groups say, however, that the study falls far short of a proper scientific assessment. “It makes sweeping recommendations based on wholly inadequate data,” said the chairwoman of Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA), Farwiza Farhan.

“This project would result in the destruction of a core conservation zone right in the heart of the Leuser Ecosystem.”

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Farwiza Farhan (Photo by Paul Hilton)

The Acehnese environmentalist T.M. Zulfikar said the results of the UGM study were wholly inadequate to support a rezoning of the Kappi Plateau region.

“Given that the site fully meets the requirements of Zona Inti status, there is no justification for downgrading it, or any other part of the national park. The methods used in the surveys by UGM are totally unclear and the results and conclusions they draw are not adequately supported by the little data they obtained in such a short study.”

The UGM researchers themselves acknowledge that much more detailed surveys are needed to form any real conclusions and make sufficiently justifiable recommendations, Zulfikar said.

“The UGM report could, at best, only be taken as a quick preliminary assessment of the area and cannot realistically be used as a basis for recommending such a far-reaching and potentially devastating high-impact project as that being proposed by Hitay Holdings.”

The spokesperson for the Aceh Coalition for Forest Care (KPHA), Efendi Isma, said that information provided by Aceh’s own Department of Mining and Energy indicated that the potential for geothermal energy in the Leuser forests was very small as compared to that in other parts of Aceh.

According to the department’s own data, there are at least 14 alternative locations in seven districts, capable of producing a combined output of more than  950 megawatts, as compared to just 142 megawatts from the proposed Gunung Kembar site and other potential sites in the Gayo Lues district.

“Most of these alternatives are also much closer to Aceh’s main human population hubs, and hence closer to the demand and more efficient,” Efendi Isma said.

“It seems ridiculous that this alternative potential is not exploited first, and that the first project to be developed could end up right in the middle of Aceh’s most precious and irreplaceable protected area.”

The local environmental groups are urging the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to immediately reject the request for reclassification of the Kappi Plateau region and affirm its commitment to retaining the area’s Zona Inti status.

Hadisiswoyo says the government has previously made positive statements about the proposed geothermal project.

In September, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s director for conservation, Tachrir Fathoni, confirmed that the minister had received a letter from the Aceh governor requesting the change of status for the Kappi Plateau region.

“He told the media that the public were in disagreement with the rezoning, so the plan would be halted,” Hadisiswoyo said.

“We are confused and extremely concerned by the conflicting messages coming from the ministry, which is supposed to be protecting this area.”

Farwiza Farhan says Kappi is the very heart of an ecosystem that is providing vast benefits to Aceh’s people every year, absolutely free, and destroying its heart means beginning to unravel the rest of the ecosystem.

“Why would we needlessly throw away billions of dollars worth of services for the sake of a small amount of power for which far better alternatives already exist elsewhere?”

According to a recent European Union study, if Aceh’s forests are fully conserved, their total economic value, in the form of ecosystem services such as water supply and the mitigation of disasters and pests, is more than US$ 1 billion per year.

Hadisiswoyo said: “This part of Indonesia is so special that it has been recognised as a World Heritage Site. It is of global importance and an irreplaceable part of our heritage, and it is our duty to protect it for generations to come.”

Citizens’ lawsuit

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Environmentalist suffered a severe disappointment in November when a panel of judges in Jakarta ruled against a group of nine Aceh citizens who brought a civil lawsuit against Indonesia’s Minister of Home Affairs.

The lawsuit is part of a two-year battle by an alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – against the proposed spatial plan for Aceh.

The plaintiffs say the home affairs minister has “failed to act on his jurisdiction to cancel the Aceh spatial plan” as required under the ministry’s decree Nº 650-441 of 2014.

They say the Aceh governor and the Aceh parliament wrongfully excluded the Leuser Ecosystem from the spatial plan.

GeRAM is appealing against the Jakarta judgement and the high court will review the case.

Farwiza Farhan say the spatial plan will “whitewash crimes of the past and pave the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction”.

The class action plaintiffs are demanding a cancellation of the plan and “a thorough and comprehensive revision” of its proposals, which they say must include the recognition of the Leuser Ecosytem’s special status.

The new spatial plan would open up swathes of the Ecosystem for roads, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions. It threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity and increase the risk of flooding and landslides.

There has already been extensive illegal burning of land in the area and there is large-scale encroachment for illegal logging and plantations. Environmentalists say the new spatial plan would effectively dissolve protection of much of Aceh’s remaining tropical rainforest.

Illegal activities within the Leuser Ecosystem have triggered a surge in poaching. Evidence of tiger presence has plummeted by almost 75 percent over the past five years and oil palm plantations are disrupting elephant migration paths.

The spatial plan makes no mention of the existence of the Leuser Ecosystem as a National Strategic Area and no reference to its role in environmental protection.

The Jakarta judges asserted that the Leuser Ecosystem was already included in the Aceh spatial plan in the form of Protected Areas so did not need to be explicitly named.

They also ruled that a citizens’ lawsuit could not be used as a means of cancelling a provincial law.

The coordinating lawyer for GeRAM, Nurul Ikhsan, countered both of these arguments. “We have presented ample evidence and expert witness testimony that the Leuser Ecosystem is more than a collection of Protected Areas and has been granted special status as a National Strategic Area for its environmental function.”

She said the plaintiffs had not requested that the judges cancel the Aceh spatial plan, but had argued that they should order the Minister of Home Affairs to fulfil his obligation to revoke it.

 

Headline photo: Aerial view of the Leuser Ecosystem. By Paul Hilton.

 

 

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