Indonesia’s Leuser ecosystem, a treasure trove of biodiversity threatened by palm oil


Iep Diah still misses the forests that used to cover the gentle hills near her home in the district of Aceh Tamiang, in the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. “There used to be hundreds of different trees here,” recalls this 40-year-old woman. Today, however, only one can be seen on those very same hills: the oil palm tree.

The forest that has been lost is not just another forest. Aceh Tamiang is located on the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem, one of most bio-diverse areas in the world, home to unique species such as the orangutan, rhinoceros or the Sumatran elephant.

The three have been placed on the list of endangered species drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), owing to the threat posed to their habitats by palm oil plantations, above all, but also those producing pulp for paper and mining operations.

Indonesian legislation protects – at least on paper – this tropical forest, defining it as a “National Strategic Area for its Environmental Protection Function”, but palm plantations continue to take over large swathes of land in the region, to feed the powerful palm oil industry. Indonesia produces almost 45 per cent of the world’s palm oil, used massively by the food industry, but also cosmetics and, increasingly, for fuel.

A report by the US environmental organisation Rainforest Action Network (RAN), published in November 2014, points to the world’s three main buyers of palm oil, Wilmar International, Musim Mas Group and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd, as being responsible for the destruction of protected areas within the Leuser Ecosystem.

“Many of the plantations in this area [Aceh Tamiang] are illegal. They don’t have the permits required and the area is protected,” says biologist Rudi Putra, one of the main environmental activists in the region.

During the 1970s, the government of then-dictator Suharto established palm oil as a political priority to reduce the high level of poverty in the country, and the plantations spread like wildfire across the island of Sumatra and Kalimantan (the name given to the Indonesian part of Borneo) and more recently, in Papua, at the expense of virgin forest such as the Leuser Ecosystem.

As a result, according to a studyconducted by the Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), at least 56 per cent of the palm planted in Indonesia between 1990 and 2005 used to be tropical forest. In neighbouring Malaysia, the world’s second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia, the figure for the same period is between 55 and 59 per cent.

Loss of habitat, all animal life, and premature death

Large oil palms now cover around 11 million hectares in Indonesia and have expanded at an approximate rate of 500,000 hectares a year over the last decade.

“If deforestation continues at this rate, within the next 15 years there will be nothing left [of the Leuser Ecosystem],” says Panut Hadisiswoyo, founder of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), an Indonesian organisation that works to conserve the ecosystems of this primate.

In Borneo, the other crucial refuge for orangutans, these primates will probably be extinct before 2080, when 80% of their habitat will have been lost mainly due to the encroachment of palm oil plantations, according to a report of the United Nations Environment Programme, published in July 2015.

Most of the animals living in Indonesia’s tropical forests die as their habitats are lost, explains Ian Singleton, director of theSumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), located close to Medan, the largest city on the island of Sumatra.

“When the companies go to these areas, they cut the biggest trees. And then they raze everything, burning it and killing every living being, including the ants. The majority of the orangutans also die in the process,” says the primatologist. “I often refer to them as the lucky survivors of an apocalyptic wave of destruction, but they are also refugees,” continues Singleton.

In addition, the fires provoked to accelerate deforestation in recent years have caused large clouds of smoke spreading over thousands of kilometres, releasing large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

In 2008, the World Bank already ranked Indonesia as the world’s number three greenhouse gas emitter, following the United States and Brazil. And in 2015, according to the World Resources Institute, the outbreaks of fire were so intense that the country exceeded the daily emissions produced by the whole of the United States.

The same fires are estimated to have caused the premature deaths of over 100,000 people, according to another report from Harvard.

A fight against deforestation

Everything changed in Aceh Tamiang on the last day of 2006. Most people in the area were all ready to celebrate the start of the New Year when the skies opened, giving way to a violent downpour covering everything in water. The district was flooded for five days.

“I lost everything in the flood. All I was left with was a scrap of material,” sobs Tengku Zainah, the former owner of a palm oil plantation, which was destroyed along with her house by the sheer force of the water.

Nine out of ten villages in Aceh Tamiang were razed by the floods, according to a World Bank report pointing to deforestation, much of it illegal, as the main cause.

“Of course it was the logging. The water brought with it recently cut timber. That’s where it all started,” says Matsum, a former journalist who is now working to raise awareness among the local people about the consequences of illegal logging.

“We all realised the connection when that happened, and since then no one in Tamiang has ever invaded the forest again,” says the activist, explaining that palm oil has created other water problems, because the rivers are polluted and the groundwater is being depleted.

“I am having to buy bottled water this year. I always used to get it from the well, but now it is dry,” says Tengku Zainah.

But halting the destruction of the forests is not sufficient. They need to be recovered to stop the floods from returning. Saw in hand, Rudi Putra and another eight “loggers” began dismantling illegal plantations in 2007.

“First we speak to the plantation owners and we tell them: ‘if you don’t hand over the land to us, you will have to give it to the police’,” explains Rudi Putra, whose team has already recovered over 3000 hectares, but its target is 100,000. Once the land is reclaimed, the palm trees are felled and the vegetation is left to grow back.

But deforestation is a rapidly advancing enemy. HAKA, the organisation headed by Rudi Putra, has denounced that between January and June of this year, over 4,000 hectares of protected land within the Leuser Ecosystem has been destroyed.

The government of Aceh has, moreover, presented a development plan that, according to conservationist groups such as HAKA, will destroy up to half of the Leuser Ecosystem.

“The forest is everything, it is our future,” says Rudi Putra. Without trees, there is no water. And without water, there is no life.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.

This article has been translated from Spanish.