A unique ecosystem with endangered orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants is threatened by the provincial Aceh government, which is ignoring national laws that protect public lands from deforestation and development.
Aceh, which has greater autonomy than other Indonesian provinces, is asserting control over land within the Leuser Ecosystem and ignoring its protected status under Indonesian law.
A new report by the European Union’s development program said the threat of damage to the protected area is high because of developments plans. Disagreement over the land use plan highlights continuing tension between the central government in Jakarta and the provincial government in Aceh. The province received autonomy in a peace deal that ended decades of separatist warfare in 2005, but the extent of Aceh’s independence from national mandates remains unclear. The silence from the government in Jakarta in the wake of these crimes speaks volumes.
Gov. Zaini Abdullah and one of his senior aides — who were both leaders of the recent rebel movement — did not respond to requests for comment about forest destruction and the land use plan.
The Gunung Leuser Ecosystem is a forested mountain area in northern Sumatra that straddles the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. It is the only place that the four rare species of Sumatran mega-fauna — orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos — share the same natural habitat, environmentalists say. The 6.5 million-acre ecosystem includes Gunung Leuser National Park, designated by UNESCO as part of a multi-park World Heritage site.
Conservationists say the Aceh government is ignoring the central government and allowing widespread illegal activities in the protected area: logging, road-building, the burning of protected land and the planting of extensive palm oil groves. The province issued its so-called spatial plan in December 2013, which sets out land use policy for a 20-year period. The document made no mention of the Leuser Ecosystem and the omission has alarmed conservationists.
In February, the Home Affairs ministry, which has authority over the planning process, rejected Aceh’s plan and directed provincial officials to include consideration of Leuser. The provincial government has yet to amend the plan and is implementing it anyway, environmentalists say.
“All we are asking is for you to follow the rules,” said Ian Singleton, scientific director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, which releases formerly captive orangutans into the wilderness area. “If you want to conserve Sumatra’s mega-fauna, you have to conserve the Leuser ecosystem.”
Muhammad Fadhil, head of infrastructure for the province’s development and planning agency, agreed with environmentalists that deforestation and the planting of palm plantations in the area was “a big problem.”
He asserted that the government was attempting to address forest destruction in the Leuser Ecosystem but acknowledged that such efforts are “a work in progress.”
The Leuser Ecosystem is one of the last remaining true wilderness areas in Indonesia. This vast landscape spans lowland evergreen dipterocarp forest, lower and upper montane rainforest, peat swamp forest, sub-alpine meadows and heathlands, freshwater lakes and rivers, and sulphur mineral pools. Sumatran rhinos, Asian elephants, and sun bears wander through the forests, while orangutans and gibbons swing through the canopies above. There is nothing like it elsewhere in Indonesia or on earth.