Aceh pushes Leuser road plan

Down to Earth No 55  November 2002

A new road system will cut across the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, despite fears that it will increase forest destruction in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam governor, Abdullah Puteh, revived plans for a network of roads in October 2001 (See DTE 52). The Rp1.5 trillion (US$150 million) project is called the Ladia Galaska: an acronym of the route from the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Straits (Lautan Hindia Gayo Alas Selat Malaka). The local authority claims this will be of great benefit: opening up isolated locations; reducing the development gap between different areas within the province; and stimulating economic growth.

Conservationists are concerned that the main road cuts through one of the world's richest areas of tropical rainforest. The 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem covers lowland and montane forest, wetlands, valleys and mountains which comprise Gunung Leuser National Park and the surrounding buffer zone. The area has significant populations of many endangered species including orangutans and elephants.

The EU-funded Leuser Development Programme (LDP) stresses how these forests protect the livelihoods of some 4 million people. Given Leuser's rugged terrain, forest loss causes serious problems for communities in the valleys and lowlands. The 'ecological services' of the watershed, such as water supplies, protection against flooding and soil erosion and freshwater fisheries, have been valued at Rp1.9 trillion annually (nearly US$200 million), far more than if the forests were cleared for agriculture and the timber sold. The planned roads will fragment the Leuser Ecosystem and reduce its biodiversity. Hunting and illegal plant collection will increase, especially since illegal settlements will spring up along the road. Instead, the LDP looks to ecotourism to generate more local income. In July, the Indonesian government proposed that the Leuser Ecosystem should be listed as a World Heritage site through UNESCO.


Deforestation, the security forces and revenues

Environment Minister, Nabiel Makarim, is opposed to the road plan. "If this project continues, I fear that Leuser will be completely destroyed," he warned. Official figures show that 270,000 ha of Aceh's forest was lost in 2000. The Leuser Ecosystem has been badly affected with one quarter of its forest area cleared. Nearly 170,000 ha within the National Park had been illegally logged by 2000 - some 20 per cent of the 842,000 ha total.

LDP staff have evidence that a South Korean investor financed an illegal logging operation in the south and south-eastern sections of the park. Malaysian businessmen may also have been involved. Logs were probably exported with false documents (before the national log export ban came into effect) from Belawan and Tanjung Balai harbours in North Sumatra. North Sumatra's forestry office in Medan said it did its best to protect the national park, "but we lack police personnel to guard the entire area". LDP suspects that police inaction is due to the involvement of local officials and security personnel, but says it is difficult to infiltrate illegal logging groups.

The Ladia Galaska plans play into the hands of the security forces, not only because road improvements facilitate military operations against the Acehnese independence movement (GAM), but because they open up new business opportunities for local elites in which the army and police feature prominently. According to Otto Syamsuddin, an NGO analyst, illegal logging has often sparked gun fights between the military and police in Southeast Aceh. Military officers were involved in automobile smuggling with smugglers charged between Rp 2 million and Rp15 million to ensure the cars reached their buyers in Aceh. They also collect fees from vehicles passing security posts amounting to as much as Rp18 billion a year (US$1.8 million).

Roads through the Leuser Ecosystem present new opportunities for corruption. A 10m swathe along 450km would clear the equivalent of 450ha of forest. This legally felled timber will be sold. In addition, the road will allow illegal loggers access to yet more highly valuable timber. The forest NGO SKEPHI has warned the World Bank and Japan Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC) of the potential misuse of funds by the Department for Settlement & Regional Infrastructure in Jakarta and the administration in Aceh associated with the road plan. It also points out how a dirt road connecting Langkat and Karo in North Sumatra, created under the military's 'village development' scheme in the 1980s, provided an opportunity for local army veterans to stake out plots of forest for farmland.


Opposition ignored

The road project has become a hot local issue in the run-up to the 2004 elections with local politicians promising that it will bring prosperity to neglected communities. The Department of Forestry and Environment Ministry proposed a number of alternatives late last year, including re-routing the road to avoid the Leuser Ecosystem; upgrading and widening the Blangkejeren-Kutacane road; and constructing small airfields or even a railway to improve communications for communities at lower environmental cost. But the provincial authorities seem determined to go ahead. They have carried out some local consultations, including a 'discussion panel' in Banda Aceh in July around the time when the Environmental Impact Assessment was presented.

However, local and national environmental groups dismiss such events as window dressing. They complain that public debate has been dominated by government officials and groups mobilised by them to support the Ladia Galaska. The Aceh branch of the environmental network WALHI sent a letter to local and central governments in July strongly opposing the road plan on the grounds that it will increase illegal logging and would not bring any benefits to communities. SKEPHI plus local NGOs and community groups have called for a proper analysis of the costs and benefits to local people and better integrated planning, to avoid a disaster on the scale of the Central Kalimantan swamp rice megaproject.

A recently formed alliance of conservation and human rights groups, initiated by SKEPHI, published a joint statement in October demanding that the central government and NAD provincial government cancel the Ladia Galaska project. It also urges donor countries stop all financial assistance to the Indonesian state budget (APBN), to prevent funding being switched to the Ladia Galaska project or other infrastructure development projects that will result in forest destruction; calls on Jakarta to dismiss the NAD Governor and the Minister for Settlement and Regional Infrastructure for violating environmental legislation through the roads project; and warned it will file legal charges against those involved in its implementation.

For further information see

(Sources: LDP booklet Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser; Isu-Isu Mengenai Usulan Jalan report DepHut, Bapenas, MLH Oct 2001; Jakarta Post 5/Jul/02, 15/Oct/02; AFP18/Jul/02; WALHI Aceh letter 9/Jul/02; Tempo 30/Jul - 5/Aug/02; SKEPHI email 12/Oct/02, 2/Nov/02)

World Bank stops Kerinci funding

The Kerinci Seblat National Park, also in Sumatra, provides a salutary lesson in terms of roads and protected areas.

This 1.48 million hectare national park straddles four provinces in central Sumatra. A 7km road into the forest, opened up before conservationists stopped a controversial local government plan, became a major route for transporting timber out of the park. Illegal logging operations continue with impunity.

The World Bank withdrew all funding for Kerinci Seblat at the end of September. No official statement was made, but it is no secret that Bank staff have been concerned for some time about the authorities' failure to prevent deforestation within the park. An integrated conservation and development programme was set up in 1996, funded by a US$19 million World Bank loan and a US$15 million grant from the Global Environment Facility. The GEF was established in 1992 following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It is jointly administered by the Bank and the UNDP.

Head of Kerinci Seblat, Listya Kusumawardhani, admits that some 30 per cent of the park has been damaged by illegal loggers and agricultural encroachment. Official figures suggest the situation is even worse. Nearly 30,000 ha of forest has been damaged or destroyed in the Pesisir Selatan and Solok districts of West Sumatra; 24,806 ha in Kerinci district, Jambi province; 20,000 ha in Rejanglebong and North Bengkulu districts; and 21,218 ha in Musi Rawas, South Sumatra.

Kerinci Seblat was one of the last strongholds of the Sumatran tiger. However, a WWF survey shows that numbers of tigers have fallen from 500 to 100 in only six years. Poaching has also reduced the elephant population from 700 three years ago to just 300. WWF warns of widespread water shortages in Sumatra if the forests of Kerinci Seblat are completely destroyed. Ten major rivers will run dry and at least 10 million hectares of rice paddies will become parched, it says.

(Sources: Jakarta Post 30/Sept/02; Tempo 22 - 28/Oct/02)