Indonesia’s Aceh province revoked a permit from a palm oil company found to be logging illegally, a spokesman said Friday, in a case seen as a test of the nation’s commitment to a deforestation ban.
The Indonesian palm oil company Kallista Alam was accused of clearing 1,605 hectares (3,966 acres) of protected carbon-rich peatland on the island of Sumatra, where tropical rainforests have fallen to rampant logging.
“We revoked Kallista Alam’s permit on Thursday. The Aceh government has gone through a long process of evaluation and found the company’s logging permit was illegal,” Aceh government spokesman Makmur Ibrahim told AFP.
Former Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf issued the permit more than three months after Indonesia implemented a two-year moratorium on logging peatland and other high-conservation-value forests in May 2011.
The ban is the centrepiece of a $1 billion bilateral agreement with Norway aimed at significantly reducing Indonesia’s carbon emissions.
The court decision to revoke the permit earlier this month came after intense campaigning by environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi).
“We hope this is the beginning of a cleaner more transparent process to forestry in Indonesia’s future,” Walhi national executive director Abet Nego said.
The land cleared was in the Tripa peatswamp, an area measuring over 60,000 hectares with the highest density of critically endangered orangutans in the world, according to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.
Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer and growing demand has put pressure on the nation’s already threatened tropical rainforests.
Before Indonesia’s logging moratorium, 80 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions came from deforestation, UN data showed, making it the one of the world’s top emitters.
The location of the Tripa peat swamps (circled) on the west coast of Aceh province, northern Sumatra, showing rivers, forest cover in 1990, peat, and district boundaries. Tripa is the site of a controversial new oil palm plantation that has could put Aceh’s governor in prison. Image courtesy of Tim Koalisi Penyelematan Rawa Tripa, a coalition of community groups seeking legal action against the governor.
The former governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, told The Sydney Morning Herald today that an oil palm plantation he approved was “not wrong legally, but wrong morally.” Irwandi, who is currently seeking re-election, signed off on the hugely controversial plantation in deep peat forest last August, but the issue came to a head this week as satellite images showed a dozen fires burning in the concession area known as Tripa. Environmental groups, which are running an online campaign, warn that the burning is imperiling an important population of Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii).
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Irwandi, who had been known as a staunch champion of Sumatra’s forests and was a leader in the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, gave insight into why approved the plantation for palm oil company, Pt Kallista Alam. He said that he is frustrated with delays over the UN’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, which proposes to pay countries to keep forests standing.
“The international community think our forest is a free toilet for their carbon,” he told the paper. “Every day they are saying they want clean air and to protect forests…but they want to inhale our clean air without paying anything.”
Irwandi admitted that he “hated” the oil palm company, PT Kallista Alam, but appears to have wanted to send a message to the international community. He described the 1,600-hectare concession as a “pinch” to the outside world, and then threatened to lift Aceh’s current moratorium on primary forest clearing in order to “make them look at Aceh.”
Sumatran orangutan. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Irwandi told the Sydney Morning Herald there were no orangutans in PT Kallista Alam’s concession, citing an investigation by his officials, which he states did not find any of the Critically Endangered species.
However, conservationists contend that the Tripa peatland forests are currently home to a few hundred Sumatran orangutans, and not long ago held as many as 3,000. Conservationists fear that the fires raging in Tripa could push this particular orangutan population–now estimated at less than 200–over the edge.
In total around 7,000 Sumatran orangutans survive in the wild today. The population has dropped 80 percent in the last 75 years, largely due to habitat loss.
An Indonesian environmental group, WALHI, has filed a lawsuit against PT Kallista Alam’s concession, arguing that the forest was initially listed as a no-go area in Indonesia’s national moratorium on deforestation and is doubly-protected as apart of the Leuser ecosystem. In addition, the group argues that local people were not consulted ahead of the concession being granted.
Irwandi, however, insists the plantation is legal, although he says he is “very sorry” for it.
WAHLI’s lawsuit was tossed out of court this week by a judge in Banda Aceh who said the group should seek settlement with the company before turning to the courts. WAHLI noted they would likely appeal the decision and questioned why it would take the court five months to make the settlement recommendation all the while PT Kallista Alam drained the Tripa peat forest.
Sumatra is a focal point for the global fight to save the world’s forests, since the tropical island has lost nearly 70 percent of its lowland forests since 1985. In addition to Sumatran orangutans, the island is the last stand for the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) and the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), both of which are listed as Critically Endangered. It is also the only place in the world where tigers, elephants, rhinos (the Sumatran rhino), and orangutans co-exist.