Conservation News: New Protected Peat Area Established Where Controversial Palm Oil Company Operated

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edited by OC’s Tom from a press release

Banda Aceh

At a historic ceremony this week in the middle of Sumatra’s Tripa peat swamps,
Mr. Husaini Syamaun, the Head of the Aceh Forestry Department, formally declared a new 1,455 hectare Protected Peat Area in the Tripa peat swamp region of the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia.

The ceremony marked the successful conclusion of an Aceh government program to block 18 illegal canals draining the peat. Mr. Husaini unveiled a signboard marking the official boundary of the new protected area and symbolically planted a tree on one of the recently constructed dams blocking the canals. Husaini confirmed “Aceh’s Government is firmly committed to protecting all peat areas deeper than three meters”.

The event was attended by local government and law enforcement agencies, local community leaders, NGO’s and the press. Community representative, Cut Erlianda, explained, “Local people support the government’s initiative to protect Tripa and hope to be actively involved in its management.”

Over 60,000 trees have already been planted in the newly protected area, with another 120,000 scheduled to be planted over the next month. The area declared as a Protected Peat Swamp was previously awarded illegally to the company PT Kallista Alam, as an oil palm concession area, but in a case that garnered global media attention, a high profile legal challenge against the permit by Acehnese environmental group WALHI Aceh (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) was successful, resulting in Aceh’s Governor formally cancelling the concession in 2012.

Today’s clear statement of intent by the Aceh government swings the international spotlight now onto Indonesia’s Supreme Court in Jakarta, which in a few weeks will deliver its ruling on an appeal by PT Kallista Alam and its directors, previously sentenced to 9 month and 3 year prison sentences and ordered to pay approximately USD 33 million in damages in additional cases against the company brought by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment.

The Leuser Ecosystem has been listed as one of the “World’s Most Irreplaceable Places” and is the only place in the world where endangered Sumatran orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos live side by side.

The Tripa Peat Swamp Forest first came to the world’s attention in 2012, when massive illegal fires raged throughout the area, “destroying the forest, killing everything in their path, and threatening to totally extinguish one of the orangutan ‘capitals of the world’”, according to Dr. Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). “Tripa is one of only three remaining peat swamp forests on the west coast of Aceh that host the highest densities of orangutans anywhere in the world,” he emphasized.

Besides the legal actions against PT Kallista Alam, several additional cases filed by the Ministry of Environment against other companies in Tripa are also ongoing.

“The successful lawsuit against Kallista Alam set a major and much needed legal precedent in Indonesia, and paves the way for others to stand up against dubious concessions elsewhere in the country,” proclaimed TM Zulfikar, of Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (the Indonesian ‘Sustainable Ecosystem Foundation’). “The blocking of these canals and the establishment of the new protected
peat area represents another historic milestone in the battle to restore and conserve the Leuser Ecosystem, a National Strategic Area protected under National Law for its critically important environmental function.

“As the Governor has stated, the law must be enforced,” reiterated Mr. Husaini, “That also means that even though the illegal PT Kallista Alam concession has been withdrawn, other people cannot now claim this land. On the contrary, the court’s decision states very clearly that it must be restored to its former condition.”

“We cannot allow our forests and peatlands to be destroyed in this way. Most of the destruction is purely for quick short-term profits for just a few already extremely wealthy companies and people,” stated Rudi Putra, of the Leuser Conservation Forum. “We’ve had enough of that already. What we
want to see is proper long-term management based on the realities of the environment here to ensure sustainable long-term economic development that benefits all of Aceh’s people,” he added.

Nyoman Suryadiputra, Head of Wetlands International Indonesia, also welcomed the blocking of these illegal drainage canals, explaining how critical peat swamp forests are in protecting local people from disasters and providing livelihoods, and how their destruction and drainage has far reaching global consequences due to the release of CO2 to the atmosphere, fuelling global warming. “In
natural conditions peat swamps like Tripa are essentially 80-90% freshwater.

Drainage canals destroy the water regulation function of the swamp, causing flash floods and droughts, seriously jeopardizing biodiversity and community livelihoods. Drainage dries the peat itself out too, of course, making it susceptible to fires and allowing its carbon content to oxidize and escape into the atmosphere. It’s exactly this kind of irresponsible destruction that we have seen throughout Tripa to date that has led to Indonesia being one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.”

“This is certainly a monumental occasion in Sumatra, and even in Indonesia as a whole,” reiterated Dr. Singleton. “Tripa has been devastated by the plantations operating there. Back in the early 90’s Tripa’s forest covered more than 60,000 ha and probably harbored over 3,000 orangutans, not to mention tigers and countless other rare and endangered species, many of which depend entirely on
swamp forest habitats for their survival. Today there are probably only around 100 to 200 orangutans remaining in Tripa, if we’re lucky, and we need to do everything we possibly can to reclaim and restore the damaged forests if we are to have any hope of keeping any orangutans surviving here.”

The blocking of canals and restoration of the area is a major step forward.

 

 

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