Ladia Galaska road network: construction continues, controversy rages

Down to Earth No 62  August 2004

NGOs have stepped up their campaign to halt construction of the Ladia Galaska road project which cuts through the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh - one of world's richest areas of tropical rainforest.

Floods hit four districts in Aceh on May 7-8, in the western area downstream of the Ladia Galaska road project, leaving one person dead, sweeping away four houses and forcing thousands to leave their flooded homes. Heavy rains had caused the region's three major rivers - Krueng Seunagan, Krueng Meurebo and Krueng Tripa - to overflow. Local environmental group, WALHI Aceh, said the roads in the Ladia Galaska network cut across two of these watersheds. WALHI repeated warnings that more disasters would follow if the authorities insisted on pushing ahead with the project.

The controversy over Ladia Galaska was reignited three years ago when Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh revived plans for the road network to link the Gayo highlands to the east and west coasts. Plans show 450km of main roads, plus over 1200km of minor roads. The project will fragment the 2.6 million Leuser Ecosystem, which encompasses Gunung Leuser National Park. It will open access to more forest exploitation in areas already severely under pressure from organised illegal logging. The police, military and members of the local political elite are all known to be deeply involved. Even the presidential edict on controlling illegal logging in the Leuser Ecosystem (InPres No5/2001), has had no effect. At least a quarter of the forests in the Leuser Ecosystem are degraded.


Hold governor accountable 
In an open letter, a 24-member environmental and human rights NGO alliance urged President Megawati to hold the Aceh governor to account for the flood disaster. The Indonesian NGO Alliance against the Ladia Galaska Road Network said Abdullah Puteh should also be told to account for the Rp 400 billion (US$44 million) of public money spent on the Ladia Galaska project since 2001 - large-scale corruption is suspected - and for approving a deeply flawed environmental impact study in 2003. The letter asked Megawati to order the project's suspension and consider alternative routes proposed by members of her cabinet and NGOs.

The Alliance is convinced that powerful national and local business interests are forcing the pace and direction of decision-making on the Ladia Galaska road network. The NGOs point to disagreement within parliament over the project. Parliamentary commission VIII, whose responsibilities include environmental issues, opposes the project, while commissions IV and IX, responsible for regional infrastructure and the national budget, are pushing for it to go ahead. The military and police in Aceh, known to be profiting from illegal logging, are in favour of the Ladia Galaska project. They also see the scheme as a means of tightening their grip on people suspected of belonging to Aceh's independence movement, GAM. Some prominent local and national political figures have accused NGOs who oppose the road network as being anti-development and pro-GAM.

Environment minister Nabiel Makarim has expressed publicly his opposition to the road project. He said the road development would destroy Leuser's biodiversity and increase illegal logging there, as well as make it easier for members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to move around. The head of the national development planning agency has spoken out against Ladia Galaska and Indonesia's most eminent environmental professor, Otto Soemarwoto, said that the environmental impact study was seriously flawed. Former environment minister and senior Indonesian statesman Emil Salim has also criticised the project for not meeting the needs of the people of Aceh. In an open letter to the Indonesian press, he called for any road developments to be in the northern part of the province where tourism, industry and agriculture would bring more benefits to the local economy and to communities.

In early July, forest conservation network SKEPHI, a member of the NGO Alliance, issued a press release listing nine 'crimes' committed by governor Puteh. These included presiding over an increase in illegal logging in Aceh - despite a logging moratorium; wasting money on Ladia Galaska when it would be better spent on humanitarian programmes and post-conflict development; presiding over corruption of project funds; setting a precedent for illegal road-building through Gunung Leuser National Park; and besmirching Indonesia's image internationally. SKEPHI also suggests ways for President Megawati to improve that image: by immediately dismissing governor Puteh from his post; preventing more spending on the Ladia Galaska project; investigating corruption in the province since Puteh became governor; stopping all work on the project; and ordering a comprehensive study of all road construction needs in Aceh.


WALHI to appeal court case ruling
Early July saw the Banda Aceh District Court's dismissal of WALHI's lawsuit against governor Puteh, and other officials. The NGO argued that the government had violated the 1997 environment law by permitting work on the project to start in 2002 before an environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been carried out. The EIA was eventually submitted in 2003. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the project had not officially started until 2003. The judges also said the witnesses had provided no hard evidence of WALHI's claim that the Ladia Galaska project would damage the protected forests.

WALHI called the ruling 'ridiculous' and said it would appeal.


Gunung Leuser National Park declared World Heritage Site

Around the date that WALHI's lawsuit was dismissed, UNESCO announced that three parks in Sumatra had been declared World Heritage Sites. They are the Gunung Leuser National Park - a 890,000 hectare area within the 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem. The other two are the Kerinci Seblat and Bukit Barisan Selatan national parks.

The news was received with dismay by SKEPHI, which had been pushing for the whole Leuser Ecosystem to be included. (DPA 6/Jul/04;


Earthquakes and landslides warning

One of WALHI's expert witnesses during the case was Eko Soebowo, a scientist from Indonesia's Institute of Sciences, LIPI. He said that six of the nine planned routes in the road network would cross a fault line and would be prone to earthquakes, landslides and collapse. The previous month, a LIPI researcher had told a seminar on the road project that that some sections of the road would be prone to natural disasters. Adrin Tohari, member of a government-appointed team* given the task of assessing the Ladia Galaska scheme, said that different sections of the road would be liable to localised landslides, generalised landslides and earthquake damage. One of the conclusions in the team's final report was that the project would have little effect on the hydrology of the area. The NGO consortium Greenomics withdrew from the team because it strongly disagreed on this point and did not want to be party to decisions taken on misleading information. Meanwhile, an official at the ministry for resettlement and regional infrastructure said that construction was proceeding only in non-controversial sections of the road.

*This team also included Bestari Raden, arrested in March this year, while visiting Aceh as part of the team's work - see box.

(Source: WALHI Aceh press release 11/05/04; Open letter from NGO Alliance Against the Construction of Ladia Galaska Road 13/05/04; Jakarta Post 10&11/Jun/04, 5&6/Jul/04; SKEPHI press release 1/Jul/04; Kompas 22/Jun/04, 9/Jul/04)


Bestari Raden on trial

The indigenous and environmental activist Bestari Raden, whose March arrest is believed to be linked to his opposition to the Ladia Galaska road scheme, is still in detention in Aceh. He is being tried on a charge of 'treason' [makar] for his alleged involvement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). The charge carries a maximum jail term of 20 years. A second charge of organising the burning down of a logging camp, carries a maximum sentence of six years.

Bestari's defence lawyers have asked for his case to be dismissed on the grounds that the evidence was insubstantial, but the judges have said that the case is to proceed. Witnesses have been called for both prosecution and defence. For background see DTE 61 or update and Amnesty International website

Urgent Action: 
Please press members of your government and your ambassador to Indonesia to take action so that:

  • the charges against Bestari Raden are dismissed; 
  • key members of the local government, administration, police and military are investigated for involvement in illegal logging;
  • work on the Ladia Galaska road network is halted.

Please also continue to send faxes to the Indonesian ambassador in your country, the Indonesian Forestry Minister and President Megawati.

Megawati Soekarno Putri
Presiden Republik Indonesia [President]
Istana Merdeka
Jakarta 10110 Indonesia
Fax +62-21 345-2685 or 380-5511 or 5268726 or
Fax Sekretariat Presiden 344-2223
Telex 44283 BIGRA IA or 44469 DEPLU IA

Menteri Kehutanan [Forestry Minister] M.Prakosa
Gedung Pusat Kehutanan Manggala Wanabhakti Blok I Lt.4
Jl. Gatot Subroto Senayan Jakarta 12070
Tel +62-21 5731820/0218
Fax +62-21 570 0226

The news was received with dismay by SKEPHI, which had been pushing for the whole Leuser Ecosystem to be included. (DPA 6/Jul/04;