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Byron Shire
February 26, 2021

Orangutan habitat destruction approved by governor

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As 97 fires burn critical Sumatran orangutan habitat, resulting in hundreds of orangutan deaths, the environment movement has been waiting for a judge’s ruling in a court action against a major palm oil company and the governor of Aceh province.

Environmental grassroots network Friends of the Earth Indonesia took the Aceh governor and large palm oil company (PT, Kallista Alam) to court for illegally approving the destruction of Tripa, an area of peat forests known to have the highest densities of Sumatran orangutans in the world.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last Wednesday, ‘After five months of detailed argument, the three-judge court sitting in Banda Aceh threw the case out on jurisdictional grounds, saying the complainants from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) should first have sought mediation with the company.

‘The lawyer for the complainants, Kamaruddin, said the judges had used the wrong legislation – the environmental law, not administrative law – to make their determination, and said an appeal was likely.’

Meanwhile, the future for the endangered orangutan looks increasingly grim.

Tripa is one of only six remaining populations of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and one of the UNEP-GRASP priority sites for the species. It currently hosts around 280 Sumatran orangutans, accounting for more than four per cent of the remaining world population. Tripa also has amongst the highest densities of orangutans anywhere in the world, which has facilitated a unique culture of tool use.

The Orangutan Project (formally known as The Australian Orangutan Project, www.orangutan.org.au) provides direct funding to help support the work involved with the conservation of the Tripa swamps.

Leif Cocks, president of the project, says, ‘Without immediate action we are seeing the death throes of Tripa and the hundreds of orangutans that need the peat land for survival. The palm oil companies are on a mission to destroy as much of the remaining forest that they can and as fast as they possibly can, ignoring the effect on the local communities that rely on the ecosystem for their health and livelihood. The orangutan population will be totally slaughtered if the current destruction is not stopped. Orangutans are dying en masse.’

In May, 2010 Indonesia and Norway signed a Letter of Intent, in which Indonesia stated its intent to reduce emissions from forest and peat-land conversions, including a two-year moratorium on new concessions for converting peat lands and natural forests, while Norway would provide $1 billion to assist Indonesia with establishing REDD projects.

The two-year moratorium was established through Presidential Instruction 10/2011, and the first revision of the ‘Moratorium on New Permits’ map was issued by the Indonesian minister of forestry at the end of November, 2011. The map shows the areas of primary forest and peat lands that are effectively off limits and protected from any new exploitation permits.

In the new revised version of the map, an area in the Tripa peat swamps on the west coast of Aceh, shown as protected peat land in the first edition of the map issued in May, had been mysteriously removed from the areas under protection.

Coincidentally, just a few days earlier, the Aceh branch of WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia had launched a court case in Aceh against the governor of Aceh and oil palm company PT Kallista Alam, requesting the cancelling of the governor’s permit issued to Kallista Alam, to convert this very same area of forest on deep peat land to an oil palm plantation. The permit was issued on 25 August 2011 – three months after the first edition of the map clearly outlined the area as protected and off limits to any new exploitation permits.

The illegal concession was a major issue for the Indonesian delegation at the UNCCC in Durban, South Africa, with Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of the president’s own special task force of reducing carbon emissions, explaining:

‘While we recognise the need for the palm oil industry to also grow, signing an agreement with a palm oil company to allow the conversion of protected peat land into palm oil plantations very clearly breaks the moratorium.’

Despite the judge’s ruling being overdue, there is no evidence that any investigation has been carried out.

The long-term environmental impacts, particularly drought and flooding, for local communities that have already lost most of their traditional livelihoods, will be irreversible, with the area ultimately becoming unusable due to coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, even for the oil palm companies. All at the cost of huge carbon emissions from the degraded peat.

A win in this case will represent a major turning point for the long-term protection of the Leuser Ecosystem, probably the single most important protected ecosystem in South-East Asia, and send a strong message towards improving environmental governance in Indonesia.

The Orangutan Project urges members of the Australian government, as well as the public, to email the president of Indonesia: [email protected] and CC your email to the Indonesian embassy in Australia: [email protected] and tell him to uphold the law and protect the Tripa Peat Swamps of Sumatra. More information can be found at www.orangutan.org.au.

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