Aceh has world-renowned biodiversity, including critically endangered orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers. This change would also undermine its incalculable value as a major carbon sink.
Imagine an area nearly half the size of New Jersey suddenly cut to the ground. Well, that’s exactly what is about to occur in Indonesia according to a report recently submitted to the Orangutan Conservancy.
A Canadian mining company announced Tuesday that it expects the governor of Sumatra’s Aceh province to allow it and other extractive industries to destroy 1.2 million hectares of valuable and currently protected rainforest.
The company, East Asian Minerals, claims in a press release to be working closely with government officials and to have staff in Aceh lobbying to reclassify large tracts of the province from “protected forest” to “production forest.” The company’s website also states that it has hired a senior government official, former Golkar Deputy Chairman Fadel Muhammad “to help them with these efforts.”
Fadel, former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and former Governor of Gorontalo Province, in addition to being the former Deputy Chairman of Indonesia’s’ Golkar Party, was re-named as a corruption suspect by the Attorney General’s office last week after several previous investigations over recent years. He is accused of misusing Rp 5.4 billion (US$ 567,000) from the 2001 provincial budget during his tenure as Gorontalo’s governor. Edward Rochette, the Canadian mining company’s CEO, said, “In his advisory role, Bapak Dr. Fadel will provide invaluable assistance to enable the projects in Indonesia to move forward in a timely and sustainable manner.” He appears either unaware or unconcerned regarding the charges facing Dr. Fadel.
“This spatial plan is being developed via a highly ‘unhealthy’ process, in which foreign corporations are intervening and driving local policy”, said Dedi Ratih, Spatial Planning Campaigner for WALHI Indonesia (Friends of The Earth Indonesia) “Reclassification of these forests is clearly not in the best interests of Aceh’s local communities, but instead in the interests of massive natural resources exploitation. This plan should be rejected immediately”
Opening these areas to mining, logging, and palm oil production would have disastrous consequences for the people of Aceh and huge areas of rainforest habitat of global importance for its exceptional biodiversity. These forests are home to critically endangered Sumatran orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants.
“This world renowned protected area -the Leuser Ecosystem – is the only place on earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers and elephants are found side by side and the least real hope for the survival of viable populations of each of them. Not to mention the myriad of other threatened species residing there” said Dr Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. “If these plans proceed, their future is in immediate jeopardy.”
According to the statement from East Asia Minerals, Tgk. Anwar, chairman of the Aceh Provincial Government’s Spatial Planning Committee, “Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry has accepted ‘almost 100 percent’ of the province’s new spatial plan, which would zone large blocks of previously protected forest for mineral extraction, timber concessions and oil palm plantations.” He goes on to admit that “Aceh has the most forest cover of any province in Sumatra, but has lost more than a third of its forests in the past 20 years.”
East Asia Minerals has already been drilling and mining at its Miwah mine in Aceh, one of its three operations in the province. The company noted that the reclassification “will allow it to fully exploit the area’s mining potential and expand exploratory drilling – pushing into areas that are currently protected.”
It also explained how it is “working closely with Government officials in the country and has representatives on the ground in Aceh to obtain reclassification of the forestry zone from from “protected forest” to a “production forest”.” The company states on its website that it plans to expand its excavations in all directions from the Moon River, which flows near to the Miwah site.
Land Already Viewed as “Too Dangerous for Logging”
Areas of the forest that have previously been identified as too high or too steep to be converted for palm oil – or having inappropriate soil to grow oil palms – have already been identified for protection under existing planning laws. These same areas are likewise completely inappropriate for other extractive uses, including logging and mining.
Illegal logging and mining is already taking place in these concessions – with terrible consequences for both the forest and the incredible biodiversity it supports. As East Asia Minerals itself acknowledges, Aceh has already lost more than a third of its forests in the past two decades alone. The new plan would also approve an extensive new network of roads, which would open up the area to yet more forest destruction and encroachment leading to catastrophic consequences for communities and agriculture downstream. The region is already prone to natural disasters that cause hundreds of deaths and huge economic losses each year.
“This is a dangerous move,” said Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist who worked on a major review of Aceh’s forestry sector for the previous Governor. “Aceh’s people have experienced countless devastating landslides already in the past that were caused by exactly this kind of forest clearing and disregard for planning laws. This will result in yet more lives lost in coming years and immeasurable losses to local economies.”
Usher added “the East Asia Minerals press release is one of the strangest that I have ever seen. It essentially suggests that they and other extractive companies are effectively driving public policy, namely spatial planning, in Aceh. Not only is this a shocking admission of flawed governance, but the company even seems proud of it! Spatial planning should be based on sound scientific analysis of land suitability and environmental risks: not the profit margins of foreign companies!”
Singleton noted the plan would result in the highly publicized Tripa peat swamp forest losing its protected status and the loss of their potentially extremely valuable carbon stocks, that could be traded in international markets. Peat swamps capture and store carbon at higher rates than other forests, and are particularly valuable in mitigating the effects of climate change. “Aceh would be far better off in the future if instead of trashing the resources it has left to the benefit of the highest bidder, it worked towards a more sustainable economy,” he concluded.