In this photo taken on May 10, 2013 two children look at a dead Sumatran elephant that was killed by electrocution the day before at Blang Gajah Mate village, in Pidie, Aceh. (AFP Photo/Zian Mustaqin)
By Nurdin Hasan Jakarta Globe July 26
Banda Aceh. Another elephant has been found dead in Aceh, the second this month, with reports from local people indicating that the elephant’s tusks have been removed.
“Conflicts between elephants and humans often happen in Blang Tualang and the neighboring village of Pante Labu,” Rabono Wiranata, the head of non-governmental organization Fakta said on Friday. “Some villagers or hunters may have placed poison on the track often used by elephants.”
The adult male elephant was found on Thursday inside an oil palm plantation run by state-owned PTPN I in Blang Tualang village, East Aceh.
Rabono said the elephant was understood to have died four days ago.
He added that local residents had repeatedly complained about a pack of elephants “trespassing” on their plantations and destroying plants, but there had been no serious response from the local authorities.
The head of Aceh’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), Amon Zamora, said he received a report of the death on Thursday night. A team was dispatched to the area on Friday morning.
“But [the team] haven’t returned, so I don’t know yet as to what caused the elephant’s death,” Amon told the Jakarta Globe. “I’ve told the team to report the case to police if the tusks were gone. If they were gone, we would strongly suspect that it’s been murdered.”
The finding came just two weeks after a 30-year-old male elephant was found dead in Ranto Sabon village in the Aceh Jaya district, Its tusks had been severed.
Aceh Jaya Forest Ranger commander Armidi said the elephant died after it was caught in a sharp metal trap placed on a big tree log.
Police and BKSDA Aceh have not been able to find the perpetrators.
The latest finding brought the number of elephant deaths in Aceh to four over the past three months.
On May 9, a 10-year-old male elephant was found dead due to electrocution in Bangkeh village in the Pidie district.
On June 23, a two-year-old elephant died after having been looked after for two months by residents of Blang Pante village in the North Aceh district. The villagers took care of the elephant cub after it was left behind by its pack in a local plantation.
Demand for ivory has soared in recent years, primarily due to increased demand from China, where it is highly valued for its use in crafting ornaments. Elephant tusks sell for several hundred dollars per kilogram.
AsiaOne Jul 21, 2013
Most are in Riau province. The other hotspots on the island are primarily further north, in Aceh and North Sumatra.
SINGAPORE – The number of hotspots in Sumatra as tracked by satellites has gone up sharply in the last two days to reach 159 yesterday, the National Environmental Agency (NEA) said.
Of these hotspots, 63 are detected in the Riau province in central Sumatra, which is about 280km from Singapore. Some localised smoke plumes are observed to emanate from the hotspots. The other hotspots on the island are primarily further north, in Aceh and North Sumatra.
Although the smoke haze is not being blown towards Singapore at this time due to wind direction, the air quality here might take a hit if winds start to blow from the west.
At the moment, the winds are blowing from the southeast or the east.
NEA said that some states in Peninsular Malaysia have been experiencing a deterioration in their air quality since late morning yesterday with the highest Air Pollutant Index (PSI) reading at 5am today being 98 in Bukit Rambai, Malacca.
Over the next two days, dry weather conditions are expected to persist in most parts of Sumatra.
NEA will provide further haze alerts to the public if these events become more likely.
Region’s Smog Shows Need for Better Oversight; More Than US$7 Billion Lost
The 61-page report, “The Dark Side of Green Growth: Human Rights Impacts of Weak Governance in Indonesia’s Forestry Sector,” finds that illegal logging and forest-sector mismanagement resulted in losses to the Indonesian government of more than US$7 billion between 2007 and 2011. Indonesia recently introduced reforms to address some of these concerns and has been touting its forestry policies as a model of sustainable ‘green growth.’ But much logging in Indonesia remains off-the-books, fees are set artificially low, and existing laws and regulations are often flaunted. A “zero burning” policy and a moratorium on forest clearing are manifestly inadequate.
“The return of the smog is only the most tangible evidence of the damage from Indonesia’s continuing failure to effectively manage its forests,” said Joe Saunders, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Weak law enforcement, mismanagement, and corruption are to blame not only for the smog but also for the loss of billions of dollars a year in desperately needed public funds.”
The persistent failures have global implications. The smog causing so much suffering for Indonesia’s neighbors is produced by clearing forests for agriculture, a practice so widespread that it makes Indonesia’s carbon emissions among the largest in the world. The Obama administration announced on June 26, 2013, that it would invest more in sustainable forestry overseas as a way to combat climate change. However, without improvements in governance in Indonesia, greater investments by the international community may not bring significant change in the status quo.
The Indonesian government recently introduced reforms in part aimed at addressing forest mismanagement and corruption, including a timber legality certification system and a freedom of information law, but such efforts have fallen far short of their aims. The new report, an update to the 2009 Human Rights Watch report “Wild Money,” analyzes industry and government data, concluding that the pace of revenue loss has actually increased in recent years. In 2011 alone, the losses totaled more than $2 billion – more than the country’s entire health budget for that year, undermining the government’s ability to provide basic services to its population, Human Rights Watch said.
It is not only during the dry season that Indonesians suffer the negative consequences of forest mismanagement. The significant loss of revenues contributes to the government’s disappointing progress on a number of human rights concerns, notably those related to rural health care.
Indonesia’s forest communities, among the country’s poorest groups, have been harmed the most under the current system. Many of these communities have constitutionally recognized rights to use the land and forests or be adequately compensated for their loss. But the new legality certification system does not address whether timber is harvested in violation of community rights to forest lands.
Increasing demand for land to expand plantations appears to be leading to more violent land conflicts, Human Rights Watch said. The problem is especially acute on the island of Sumatra, where the majority of pulp and oil palm plantations – and most of this year’s fire hotspots – are located, often on land claimed by local communities. The government’s failure to comply with its own regulations for issuing concessions on forest land claimed by communities and its failure to hold companies accountable for violating legally required compensation agreements have led to an escalation in disputes. For example, in 2011, the escalation of long standing land disputes associated with an oil palm plantation in the Mesuji sub-district of South Sumatra led to violent clashes between local villagers and company security, leaving two local farmers and seven company staff dead.
In May the Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s practice of allocating concessions on customary land is unconstitutional, offering some hope to those communities. However, in the current climate of opaque, unaccountable forest governance, without adequate participation and oversight, identifying and registering rights to these lucrative forestlands could easily result in more, rather than fewer conflicts, Human Rights Watch said.
A resident (R) looks at the carcass of a male Sumatran elephant, its head and trunks mutilated and ivory tusks missing, in Aceh Jaya district on Indonesia’s Sumatra island. According to Natural Resources Conservation Agency the elephant was killed by a booby trap set up by unidentified people.
In the month of May, three elephants were found dead in Tesso Nilo National Park, south of Aceh. Fewer than 3,000 endangered Sumatran elephants remain in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rampant expansion of palm oil, paper plantations, and mines, has destroyed nearly 70 percent of the Sumatran elephant’s forest habitat over 25 years, conservationist says, and the animals remain a target of poaching.
Aceh Terkini July 5
Representing the defendant are Luhut M.P Pangaribuan, Irianto Subiakto, Rebecca F. E Siahaan, Alfian C. Sarumaha and Firman Lubis.
Jakarta Globe, July 5
Indonesia has the dubious distinction of having seen two of its tiger species fall into extinction and, as a leading environmental group says the Sumatran tiger will soon follow suit if urgent action is not taken, the government should look to India if it wants to be seen as a country serious about protecting its endangered species.
In the 1970s, there were around 1,000 Sumatran tigers, but estimates today indicate there are fewer than 400 living in the wild. By contrast, no more than 300 wild Bengal tigers were recorded in 1973, but the latest data show the species has been revived to around 1,500.
The process was initiated by Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi after a colorful campaign by environmentalists warned of the Bengal tiger’s imminent extinction.
Ghandi responded with a succession of measures, including bans on poaching and trading in tiger skins, while creating a regulatory framework to foster the protection of the Bengal tiger, which, at the time, was in even greater danger of extinction than its Sumatran counterpart.
Success at preventing the Bengal tiger’s demise, and increasing their number, resulted from a clearly defined political commitment to protect the animal’s habitat and punish poachers, underpinned by public-awareness campaigns.
Indonesia’s conservation efforts fall short
Indonesia’s efforts to protect the Sumatran tiger began in 1973 with the ratification of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement that required signatories to create a special authority that dealt specifically with issues concerning endangered animals and plants.
The number of Sumatran tigers has, however, continued to weaken — a consequence of unchecked deforestation and patchy enforcement against poachers.
Indonesia has already lost two species of tigers to poachers — the last Javan and Bali tigers were seen in the 1970s and 1940s respectively.
“Generally, tigers reproduce easily and can give birth to two or three cubs each year,” said Aditya Bayunanda, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia’s Global Forest and Trade Network National Coordinator.
“Hence, the problem does not lie in the reproductive cycle, but ensuring a safe environment for them to live in. The highest fatality rate for tigers is from poaching and getting snared. Not to mention deforestation, which destroys their habitat.”
From 1985 to 1997, an estimated 67,000 square kilometers of forest were lost in Sumatra. Forest conversion has cut into protected areas. National parks have become islands, effectively marooning the tigers.
The isolation of parklands makes it harder for tigers to survive as their prey is depleted more quickly.
This contrasts sharply with the case of the Bengal tigers, where the governments of Nepal and India successfully reconnected 11 areas through wildlife corridors in 2000.
“If the situation doesn’t improve and effective measures are not taken by the government, it’s possible that these tigers will be extinct within 10 years.” – Sunarto, WWF-Indonesia
Sumatran tigers can still be found in several provinces on Indonesia’s largest island, with most thought to be in Gunung Leuser and Kerinci Seblat national parks.
But cutting down trees to make way for agriculture, plantations and settlements has encroached on the tigers’ habitat and forced them to enter villages in search of food, consequently increasing the occurrences of human-tiger conflicts.
People are, understandably, slow to hesitate to kill tigers when contact does occur, but anecdotal evidence indicates that maulings have caused communities to begin hunting tigers as a preemptive measure.
“The situation in India is different because of cultural and religious beliefs toward animal treatment,” Sunarto, the Tiger Conservation Coordinator at World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, told the Jakarta Globe. “To them, animals are not just animals, they hold spiritual importance.”
Raising awareness is a fundamental precursor to any concerted conservation effort, the WWF says.
“People need to be more aware and critical of their consumer choices as the problem lies deeper than others can even imagine,” Sunarto said. “For example, choosing where one’s palm oil comes from can influence the situation as companies often clear forests and destroy the tigers’ habitat to make way for palm-oil plantations.”
The Indonesian government has taken steps to address the regulatory deficit.
“They’ve set up conservation areas with rules and regulations to prevent illegal poaching,” Sunarto said. “Measures have also been taken to safeguard the tigers’ habitat by stationing rangers to protect these creatures from poachers.
However, efforts to conserve the Bengal tiger have been more successful than those for the Sumatran tiger because India and its partners in conservation are more committed to the cause,” Sunarto said. “Indonesia’s government needs to update its laws and regulations, as well as effectively enforce these rules.”
The Ministry of Forestry has formed partnerships with palm and paper companies responsible for eroding tiger habitats. A recent report by Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of environmental NGOs in Riau, said such partnerships amounted to little more than “greenwashing,” and that behavior had not changed.
“The current laws and regulations in place deal with illegal conversion of forests harshly. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement,” Aditya said. “If the government enforced these laws more effectively, the tiger population would benefit greatly from it.”
By Wendy Miles and Micah Fisher, Hawaii Opinion, Jakarta Post July 5
The smoke rising from fires in Sumatra can be seen from outer space. Air pollution in Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia has spiked, reaching levels hazardous to human health. Although the fires are of immediate concern at the regional level, they are quite disconcerting at the global scale.
The fires originate in one of Earth’s carbon super-sinks: peat swamps. Hidden underneath Sumatra’s lowland rain forests are thousands of years of partially rotted tree trunks, branches, and leaves which never fully decomposed after their submersion into water.
This dark under-world has the potential to become an inferno when exposed to air and ignited. Thus, as Indonesia’s peatlands are drained and burned, one of the world’s greatest long-term carbon sinks is being transformed into a rapid carbon source.
Scientists estimate that during the Indonesian fires of 1997, between .81-2.67 gigatons of carbon were released into Earth’s atmosphere. This is comparable to 13-40 percent of the fossil fuels emitted globally that same year, catapulting Indonesia to be ranked the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the US) according to some indices.
Over US$1.4 billion has been invested to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Indonesia. Investors include Norway, Australia, Germany, United States, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, South Korea and Japan — as well as private companies such as Merrill Lynch, the Marubeni Corporation and Gazprom. Why are these investments not working in Riau Province, where most of the fires causing the Singapore Haze have occurred?
One strategy being pursued to combat Indonesia’s forest fires and high deforestation rates is a mechanism known as REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
Envisioned as a form of “payments for environmental services”, high-emission countries and companies pay rainforest-rich nations and communities to conserve forests, thus “offsetting” carbon emissions in one location through the sequestration of carbon in another.
This strategy is based on the premise that market logic is more effective than government regulations in curbing carbon emissions.
Indonesia now hosts more than 50 international REDD+ carbon-offsetting initiatives that promise potentially billions of dollars worth of investments. But the haze looming over Sumatra confronts REDD+ investors and Indonesia with the contradictions of market-based solutions.
Using NASA’s Active Fire Data and Indonesian Forestry Ministry concession maps of Riau, the World Resources Institute has shown that more than half of last week’s fires were on timber and oil palm concessions.
Ironically, the two corporations holding over half of these concessions are Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas International (which includes Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, Ltd.).
According to a UN-REDD inventory, these two Indonesian conglomerates fund REDD+ initiatives in Riau Province as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. Unfortunately, the emissions associated with this week’s blazes are sure to outweigh the potential offsets of REDD+ activities in Riau Province.
In the coming weeks there will be attempts to pinpoint the source of Sumatra’s peatland fires. Tracking the culprits has proven difficult in years past, as these fires are not isolated events and peat can actually smolder below ground for months or even years before resurfacing into flames.
Accusations already abound against Indonesia’s conglomerates, palm oil companies, smallholder farmers, and migrants squatting on concessions. Some of the accused are trying to increase profit margins, while others are struggling to make a daily living. But they all share the same market logic that underlies the REDD+ initiatives.
Some people will interpret these fires as an example of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The rational individual (e.g. the Sumatran farmer or Indonesian corporation) will make ever-increasing demands on natural resources until the expected costs of his or her actions equal the anticipated benefits.
Prioritizing personal interests, individuals sharing the commons (e.g. Indonesia) ignore the impacts of their actions on others (e.g. Singapore). In the end, everyone suffers.
But Hardin’s thesis is an over-simplification of reality. Decades of research have shown that societies repeatedly overcome the risk of such tragedies — finding ways to communicate, collaborate and sustainably manage their natural resources.
The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom recognized that the “Global Commons” presents humanity with a new challenge. Earth’s atmosphere is a case in point.
Can we come together as nations, corporations, organizations, and individuals to build an atmospheric ethic?
Wendy Miles researches the political ecology of REDD+ in Indonesia’s peatlands. Micah Fisher has long worked and lived in Indonesia. Both Miles and Fisher are PhD students at the University of Hawaii’s geography department.
The Ecologist/ Jim Wickens June 30
Western consumers are inadvertently driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction by eating, washing and wearing – in cosmetics – the derivatives of a fruit that is destroying the animal’s last remaining forest habitat. Jim Wickens reports
Everyday we read about the tragic death of another African elephant slaughter, the world watching in horror at the sight of desiccated carcasses, dried pools of blood and crudely-hewn stumps where tusks once were;snapshots from distant crime scenes feeding a ghoulish market for ivory in the Far East. The African ‘elephant wars’ make comfortable viewing for Western audiences who assume a moral superiority over the slaughter – a narrative where the rest of the world outside of Africa and China plays little role in the wildlife tragedy unfolding there on a daily basis.
There are around half a million African elephants currently left in the wild, but, by contrast, just 2500 Sumatran elephants remain today. It is – by far – the most endangered elephant in the world, but it is an animal whose fate is largely unreported to the outside world. Coincidence perhaps, or an uncomfortable truth? On my journey into the forested lands of Aceh in Sumatra, I’ve found that it is not poaching that is driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction, but palm oil expansion, and we are eating it, washing with it, and smearing it on our faces every single day.
Crouching low in the vines, I can smell the diesel fumes wafting up from the chainsaw that whines away just metres away from us. The sound stops, a brief pause followed by a towering crash as an ancient hardwood plummets through the canopy. This is the frontline in the struggle against palm oil, a shifting frontier that is eating away at the most biodiverse forest on the planet, and it’s a dangerous place to be. Whispering so as not to be heard, our guides urgently beckon us away. To be spotted could be lethal – loggers here are frequently armed, a melting pot mafia of community members, freedom fighters and army personnel whose rule is the law in these remote stretches of Aceh, the Northern most province of Sumatra. This rarely-visited corner of Indonesia is home to the last great forest habitats of the Sumatran elephant in the world. And it is being destroyed for palm oil.
For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.
Communities returning home after the Aceh ceasefire have found themselves facing a new threat to their livelihoods; crop damage caused by roaming herds of elephants, opportunistically-eating their way through croplands and antagonising families already brought to their knees by decades of civil war. And the death toll on both sides of the species divide is rising every month.
Ransomed in frustration
Nicknamed Raja by the people who fed him, the baby elephant cuts a pitiful sight, straining for food at the end of a rusty padlock and chain. Caught in a plantation in Aceh Utara last month, the villagers said they were keeping him here by force. Government vets have tried to remove him, but they refused, demanding compensation for the damage that elephants do to their land first. Farmer Sabaruddin, showed us chewed up banana leaves, missing coco pods and a hut verging on collapse, all surrounded by tell-tale feet marks of thieving elephants, that he says are drastically impacting on the livelihoods of the community here.
‘The people are angry when the elephants destroy the fields, because it is not just one or two years waiting to harvest, but sometimes for many years. When we are about to harvest the elephants had already come and destroyed the field. We plant again and then just when it’s about time to harvest, it’s destroyed again’, he said. Deprived of full time veterinarian care, Raja died two weeks later at the end of his chain. He is not alone.
In Geumpang further North, a village chief took us up a winding lane to the sight of fresh mound of earth. It is all that remains of a young male elephant that was electrocuted by a low hanging cable over crops two nights earlier. It’s not the elephant’s death that worries him however, but the fate of his people.
‘There was a conflict here in which one of our people was killed because the elephant stepped on him when he tried to chase them away…Imagine, he has three children, now they don’t have any more education.’ ‘If we talk about the future of elephants, we have also to prioritise the importance on the future of the people. If the future of the people is good, then, the future of the elephants may also be better’ he warned.
For years the government response to crop-raiding elephants has been to capture and contain animals deemed as ‘problematic’. We visited Saree elephant camp, a government-run containment centre in Aceh, to observe conditions. Despite the best efforts of staff labouring under sparse resources, these holding centres are effectively prisons: barren sites where elephants deemed to be problematic are forcibly taken from the wild and subjected to a life of chained captivity, with no hope of release and little chance of enrichment to break the monotony. Dozens of elephants are living out a life of containment in these camps across Sumatra.
I watched in the dying heat of the day as mahouts barked instructions and scrubbed elephants kneeling to their every word, fearful perhaps of the sharp-pronged bull hooks tucked into the trousers of their masters. One elephant seemed psychologically scarred, repeatedly swinging its head back and forth as it gazed out over rusty barbed wire at life on the outside of the camp.
Elephant containment camps are cruel, say welfare campaigners, but the real tragedy for the elephants may not be so much that individual elephants are contained, but rather that these critically endangered animals have to be removed from the wild, and a rapidly-shrinking gene pool, in the first place.
The question, ask conservationists, is not how to keep wandering elephants away from communities croplands, but why these critically endangered herds are venturing out of their forest homes in the first place.
Mike Griffith’s is a leading conservationist in Sumatra and until early 2013, was the deputy director of the Aceh government department that was charged with forest protection.
‘We have a major problem and the only way to save the elephants, I believe, is to separate the elephants from the actions of man, that means oil palm, gardens and the impacts of roads and so on, that is why you have national parks, the is why you have reserves, that is why you have the Leuser ecosystem.’
A jagged line of towering peaks that run across much of Aceh, the Leuser ecosystem is the most biodiverse forest in S.E Asia, 2.2 million hectares of forested hills that stretch across Aceh and the only place on earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos are found together in the wild. It is a cornucopia of biological richness and a sanctuary for hundreds of elephants who live amidst it’s hills and hidden valleys that are protected from development under Indonesian law. But it’s being eaten alive.
Working closely with local rangers from Aceh, we drove close to the Leuser frontier, keen to get a sense of this wildlife sanctuary famed around the world. Hours of driving through endless palm plantations brought us not to forests but to mud-stained hillsides clogged with debris and freshly torn tree roots.
Bulldozers had taken on where chainsaws had done their work, relentlessly bashing through logs and stumps to drive terraces into the hillsides. Navigating our way through the quagmire, we passed two motorbikes, wildlife traders waving cheerfully on their way to check bird traps that they had laid the night before on the newly-penetrated forest edge. Two howler monkeys clung to a tree stump, silent and motionless, overlooking a thousand hectares of devastation. The only green to be seen were tiny seedlings, their leaves fluttering quietly along the newly-cleared terraces. Oil palm.
It was a sight that left the team, the rangers even who deal with destruction on a weekly basis, speechless. A week earlier these rolling hills had been rainforest, home to many of the rarest large animals on the planet. ‘When you replace these forests with oil palm plantations, you create green deserts… Nothing lives there except cockroaches, mosquitos and rats.’ says Mike Griffiths.
In the silence we took in the destruction, a line of brown dotted by bulldozers, a silence broken only by the ceaseless whine of chainsaws eating their way deeper and deeper into the Leuser forest refuge. This expansion is a relentless onslaught taking place every day in Aceh and across Sumatra.
The sticky palm oil trail back to Britain
We eat it as vegetable oil, wash our clothes with it as detergent, we use it in cosmetics, we wash with it as shampoo and soap; soon we will even be burning it in our cars. There are over 30 names for palm oil derivatives, many used daily in the home. According to Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer, companies use palm oil because it’s cheap and incredibly versatile. It is an industrial wonder ingredient which has rapidly been incorporated as an invisible fat and filler into dozens of products that permeate our every day lives.
Under pressure from campaigners, food companies have begun to refer to a plethora of terms which suggest the palm-derived ingredients within are ‘sustainably’ sourced, endorsed by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated – and heavily criticised – certification body working on palm oil issues.
But this investigation has found that much of the palm oil sold under the guise of sustainability is actually sourced from palm plantations which may not even have passed the weak certification criteria. Two of the four certification methods operating under the RSPO remit allow food companies to use oil from uncertified plantations in food products that are allowed to be mixed or ‘offset’ from plantations that tick the right boxes elsewhere.
Confused? You are not alone. The RSPO is a mess, say campaigners, misleading consumers and allowing multinational brands and industry-backed NGOs who work within the RSPO process to paint little more than a green tinge over an inherently destructive industry.
‘It is criminal that consumer industries are able to hide behind this gross illusion of “sustainable” palm oil when its production is persistently fuelling the wholesale destruction of the world’s most vital forests,’ says Jo Cary-Elwes from the conservation organisation Elephant Family. Lowland habitats in Sumatra – the only areas where critically endangered elephants can survive in the wild, are the same sought-after areas exploited and planted over in palm oil.
Unless palm oil expansion is halted and reversed, conservationists say, it will be game over for the Sumatran elephant, which, alongside the rhino and tiger, teeters close to the brink of extinction. But you wouldn’t know that from palm oil labelling. When you buy organic tomatoes, you get organic tomatoes. When you buy free range eggs, you get free range eggs. But when you buy palm oil labelled as sustainable in some way there is a good chance that what you actually get is oil which has been produced from a plantation built over the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the planet.
A resistance movement is born
Graham Usher is a man on a mission. We meet on the side of a muddy track high up in the midst of another freshly-planted palm concession that lies within the protected confines of the Leuser ecosystem. Crouching under a tent in the blistering midday heat alongside local rangers, he is busy putting the finishing touches to a an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, that he is using to map out fresh incursions into the forest. With a shout and the briefest of run-ups, the self-made drone is in the air and recording high-resolution footage that shows the scale of fresh cuts in the lush trees.
‘It’s a never ending job,’ he says. ‘It takes them half an hour to chop down a 400yr old tree, but if you want to guard it, it’s 24hrs a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year… the use of a drone is a game changer,’ he says. ‘This sort of work, this collection of evidence, provides us with a much stronger case when you go to decision makers and say, look, this is what is going on, these are your laws, why isn’t action being taken?’
Faced with dysfunctional governance and a spineless certification system, local communities in Aceh, fearful of floods caused by land clearance upstream, are fighting back. In 2012 over a thousand hectares of illegally grown palm oil was confiscated and chain-sawed down, the terraces bulldozed back into their natural shape. Within two months elephants had returned; within 2 years, orangutans, says Taesar, one of the rangers leading the regeneration project, ‘and we have over 5000 hectares more that we are trying to win back at the moment.’
It’s heartening to hear that the tide of forest clearance can be slowed, and even turned around, albeit it not by the multi-million dollar ‘responsible’ palm industry or conservation groups based in Europe and the USA who work so closely with the industry, but instead by grass-roots activism and local communities, many of whom are volunteers.
Despite these efforts however, at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The Governor of Aceh recently issued a controversial ‘spatial’ plan for Aceh, a dryly-worded policy document concerned with reclassifying land use across Aceh. But the details within, say conservationists, are terrifying. The plan effectively green-lights environmental roll-back and decades of forest protection. It’s a carve-up of much of the remaining low-lying forest in Aceh, opening the way for mining and hundreds of thousands of hectares of further palm plantains”.
‘When you look at the needs of the Sumatran elephant, they need lowland forest to live in every time you disturb them, every time you put in plantations, you put in farming, you get conflict. Who is the loser out of that? It is always the elephant, they will disappear if we do not have large areas of lowland rainforest protected for them…’ says Graham. ‘If we don’t take urgent action a few year down the road we will be looking at the leuser ecosystems and saying my god, why didn’t we do more when we had the chance?’
In response to our request for a statement on the Spatial Plan, a spokesperson for the Indonesian government said the plan is a mess, stating that it is largely driven from political interests in Aceh itself. But he stressed that the authorities in Jakarta are trying to balance the needs of the environment with the livelihood needs of 250 million Indonesians.
Death by chocolate
On our last day in Aceh, the news came through that two more elephants have been found dead further south. Our cameraman flies through the night and arrives to record the grizzly scene. The images show two carcasses that seem to writhe amidst the shadows on the forest floor, an army of maggots feasting upon the flesh of the dead elephants that lie there. Elephants disappear quickly in the jungle. A convenience not lost on the oil palm plantation workers who are accused of frequently lacing chocolate bars with rat poison or phosphates, dropping them temptingly on elephant paths that meander close to valuable oil palm plantations.
The young male and female animals we filmed were one of three elephants poisoned in Sumatra last month, the latest casualties in the ever-growing elephant conflict.
Eclipsed in the media by the slaughter of African elephants for Asian ivory consumption, the fragile fate of the Sumatran elephant remains out of sight, hidden amidst the dark recesses of the rapidly disappearing forests that they call home.
It’s not poaching, but palm oil which remains the principle threat to the survival of the Sumatran elephant in the wild. Industrially-produced palm oil from Sumatra is a ‘liquid ivory’, and everybody reading this article inadvertently consumes it every day. Eating, bathing and washing ourselves in a fruit that has displaced forests in the last place on earth where the Sumatran elephant can survive.
Walking away from the chainsaw gangs in Leuser, our ranger turns and confronts me. ‘The world must see this destruction, the world must know what is happening now… see the destruction everywhere, we have to rise up and prevent all of these things from happening before it is too late. What people need to do, people from every part of the world need to think smart, think creatively and never to use any product that contains processed palm products. Palm oil destroys the forests’, he said. Time perhaps to heed his words.
Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist and producer with the Ecologist Film Unit