The man who signed the permit that allowed 1600 hectares of carbon-rich peat forest and orang-utan habitat to be razed and turned into a palm oil plantation agrees his decision was ''morally wrong''
Abundant … up to 300 orang-utans lived in the Tripa forests. Photo: Pat Scala
However, Irwandi Yusuf, the former governor of Aceh who is seeking a second term in Monday's election, said he had done it as a wake-up call to the international community over its failing climate change policies.
Dr Irwandi - who once worked in a project to conserve endangered elephants - signed a pledge shortly after becoming governor in 2007 to protect all his province's primary forests, which lock away billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in their metres-deep peat swamps.
He was also active in international climate negotiations, arguing that Acehnese forests could be saved if international companies were prepared to pay to protect them as a way of offsetting their emissions in so-called REDD+ schemes.
However, in an interview with the Herald in Banda Aceh this week, Dr Irwandi announced his disillusionment with the REDD+ schemes and threatened to allow more forests to be burned if nothing changed.
''The international community think our forest is a free toilet for their carbon,'' he said. ''Every day they are saying they want clean air, and to protect forests … but they want to inhale our clean air without paying anything.
''That concession, 1600 hectares, was like a pinch to the international community. Maybe I will make a threat to lift the moratorium [entirely] to make them look at Aceh''.
Dr Irwandi said thousands of people had lost their jobs when he had declared the moratorium on clearing peat forests.
''I wanted some funds to create a livelihood for people who lost their job. The money did not come,'' he said. ''REDD or blue I don't care: where is the international attention on that?''
He said he ''hated'' the palm oil company, P T Kallista Alam, to which he had granted the permit to create a plantation in the Tripa swamps south of the capital. He said he had delayed their application for 12 months, but his bureaucrats told him he should issue it.
''I feel very sorry for that. It was not wrong legally but wrong morally,'' he told the Herald.
Dr Irwandi also denied claims by conservationists that 100 or more critically endangered orang-utans had died when the patch of forest was cleared, saying his inspectors had found ''no single orang-utan was there''.
However, the director of conservation at the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Program, Ian Singleton, said he could ''take Dr Irwandi into that Kallista Alam concession and find 10 orang-utan nests within 20 minutes, and orang-utans within an hour''.
There were at least 100 and anywhere up to 300 of the apes living in the concession that was recently destroyed, Dr Singleton said.
A landscape protection specialist in Sumatra, Graham Usher, sympathised with Dr Irwandi's frustration at the performance of REDD schemes but said: ''It does seem a bit like setting your own house on fire to draw attention to the shortcomings of the fire department.''
Environment groups failed in Aceh's courts on Tuesday to have Dr Irwandi's decision overturned.