26 March 2012

Palm oil case against 'Green Governor' in Indonesia heats up

Environmental activists have launched an urgent appeal calling for a "just decision" in a court case that has pitted Aceh's "Green Governor" and palm oil developers against efforts to save endangered orangutans in a Sumatran peat forest

Rhett A. Butler | mongabay.com | March 22, 2012
Sumatran orangutan in the Leuser rainforest. Photo by Rhett Butler.

In letters directed toward judges weighing the case in Sumatra's Aceh Provice, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the country's REDD+ authority, the World Bank, and the Governors' Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), a coalition of conservation groups says the outcome of the case could have substantial implications for efforts to conserve Indonesia's remaining forests and peatlands.

The case revolves around a recent decision by Aceh Governor Irwardi Yusuf to grant a permit to develop a 1,600-hectare (3,950-acre) oil palm plantation in the heart of Tripa peat swamp, which environmentalists say is a critical habitat for Sumatran orangutans. The area consists of "deep peat", meaning that conversion will spawn substantial greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing the capacity of the ecosystem to buffer against flooding and drought.

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 concern is that the permit was issued despite prohibitions about clearing the forest area, which was initially listed as "off-limits" under the national moratorium enacted last year and is also protected under its designation as part of the Leuser Ecosystem. Conversion of the forest would further seem to breach a ban on plantation development in deep peat areas as well as Governor Irwandi's own moratorium on deforestation. Finally the concession was allegedly granted without the consent of local communities, which WAHLI — the coalition of Indonesian NGOs — says they oppose and is now the basis for the lawsuit, which has been brought in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh Province.

The defendants include the Governor Irwandi and PT Kallista Alam, the palm oil company that won the permit. Judges are expected to rule on the case March 28.

WAHLI alleges that PT Kallista Alam, has lobbied heavily for the plantation, winning an exemption under the 2011 moratorium. Mongabay was unable to confirm the accuracy of this claim, but the most recent revision of the indicative map, which defines the moratorium, shows the area in question is now zoned as 'unprotected' (the moratorium excludes areas granted for concessions prior to January 1, 2011 even if they haven't yet been developed). Governor Irwandi's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Attempts to reach PT Kallista Alam were unsuccessful.

WAHLI says that a decision in favor of Governor Irwandi and PT Kallista Alam would "make a mockery" Indonesia's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and undermine laws in place to protect endangered species and high conservation value forest.

"If the judges find in favor of the Governor and PT Kallista Alam, and the permit is allowed to stand, the implications for a wide range of environmental and social issues in Indonesia are huge," said WAHLI in a statement. "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 SE Asia, and send a strong message towards improving environmental governance in Indonesia."

Tripa peat swamp.Northern section of the new concession plotted on a time series of satellite images (Spot 5: 29/1/06; Landsat 7: 21/1/10 and 20/10/20) showing damage to the area before the concession permit was ever issued. The purple star on the right hand image are orangutan nests photographed on 11/11/11. Red flames with yellow border are fire hot spots in 2011, red flames with black borders are those in 2009 and 2010, and the small red dots are fire events 2001 to 2008.
Tripa peat swamp.The 2 original concession areas of PT Kallista Alam (shown in pink hatching) and “new” concession (in red) in the Tripa peat swamps, on a 2006 satellite. Images and captions contained in Tripa Truths, a report produced for Tim Koalisi Penyelematan Rawa Tripa.

Aceh is among the most forested provinces in Sumatra, which has suffered widespread forest loss for oil palm estates and pulp and paper plantations.

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