Down to Earth No. 52, February 2002

Threats to Gunung Leuser

Gunung Leuser, one of the largest protected areas of rainforest remaining in SE Asia, is threatened by local political and economic vested interests.

The 850,000 hectares of tropical rainforest which make up Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the last places in Indonesia where the increasingly endangered Sumatran rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans all occur. The European Union and the Indonesian government signed an agreement, in May 1995, financing a EUR 50,500,000 (US$44 million) seven year integrated conservation and development project. The aim of the Leuser Development Program (LDP) was to promote the long-term conservation of the area.

One of the project's most significant steps was to propose that a large, mainly lowland area surrounding the national park should also be given protected status to protect its biodiversity. The Leuser Ecosystem now covers some 2.6 million hectares: 80% in the contested territory of Aceh (now officially called Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam) with the remaining 20% in the province of North Sumatra. The LDP is proposing this becomes a World Heritage Site.

Some locally powerful individuals and groups in Aceh and North Sumatra are trying to get rid of the protected status of the Leuser Ecosystem and even the national park. Criticism of the Leuser programme has intensified as the funding comes up for renewal in May 2002. The EC Delegation in Jakarta and the central government are currently considering an extension. Opposition to the national park and the EU's involvement includes nationalists opposed to foreign financing; politicians and government officials boosting their popularity ratings by promising local people the benefits of 'development'; illegal loggers and entrepreneurs who want to plunder the richest forest left in northern Sumatra and Aceh. Opposition is strongest in Aceh where the majority of the Leuser Ecosystem lies: land classified as buffer zone or watershed protection forest cannot be used for logging, plantation or agricultural schemes which generate revenues for local governments.

One fifth of the national park which is the heart of the protected area has already been affected by illegal logging and the damage seems to be increasing. It is difficult to gather information about the extent of the problem or who is responsible. Three CIFOR researchers were murdered in Leuser in 1999 and two research and monitoring posts have been burned down. Indonesian researchers for Flora & Fauna International describe how they recently witnessed extensive illegal logging near the Ketambe station and how some chainsaw operators who were arrested were later quietly released without charge. Conservation efforts, including attempts to establish community forests and other community development activities, have often been thwarted by illegal logging, most of which is controlled by non-local people. Government conservation staff openly admit that local government officials, the police and military are involved, making it difficult to bring the offenders to justice. The head of SE Aceh's military command, Letkol Mohamad Sokeh, was sacked last July on suspicion of involvement in illegal logging after the LDP presented evidence. The head of Aceh Assembly's environment commission said in public that "Aceh's civil servants are possessed by timber demons."

The conflict in Aceh has also affected the protected area as hundreds of displaced families - many of them transmigrants - flee into the Leuser Ecosystem. Some, but not all, return to their homes once the worst of the fighting dies down. For example, by mid-2001, there were 200 displaced families, adding to over 500 settler families who had moved in from other parts of Sumatra. Park officials estimated that 1,600 new settlers had cleared 6,800ha in four locations within the national park by late last year. Many are suspected of involvement in illegal logging syndicates.

Logging companies

Large tracts of protection forest within the Leuser Ecosystem are still officially zoned as timber concessions. The community forestry campaign group Rimueng Lam Kaluet celebrated the forestry minister's decision finally to cancel the licence of PT Asdal in October (see DTE 47). This follows their action in 1999 against PT MRT, also in South Aceh, for illegal logging. In total five logging concessions have closed down since the Leuser project began its operations on the ground in 1997. But other companies continue to log. Local communities are increasingly pressing local forestry offices and Jakarta to withdraw these permits and control illegal logging as floods and water shortages threaten their livelihoods. Their demands are supported by the LDP. There is also the threat of small-scale concessions (100ha) issued by the local authorities, nominally to local co-operatives, since regional autonomy.

Pusaka Indonesia Foundation, a local NGO, is suing the President and a number of central, Aceh and North Sumatra government officials for Rp11 trillion (US$ 1bn) for damage done Leuser Ecosystem by forest concession holders. The class action was brought to a Medan court in October on behalf of 3,500 people living around the national park.

Aceh's governor backed a plan, late last year, for a network of roads right through the area. This new version of an old plan had the added danger that, under local autonomy, it could be financed by selling timber cleared along the routes. A number of NGOs in Aceh denounced the scheme, known locally as Ladia Galaska. The latest, unconfirmed news is that SE Aceh's local government has agreed to cancel it, due to lobbying from the LDP, provided that an existing road is repaired. WALHI Aceh protested to the EU last August about alternative plans to construct an airstrip just outside the park at Kutacane to increase tourism and improve communications. Apart from the impact of the construction of the road and settlers along it, any new roads will expose the Leuser Ecosystem to more illegal logging followed by large-scale oil palm schemes. Business interests located in Banda Aceh, Medan and Jakarta would benefit financially, at the expense of the long-term food, economic and ecological security of the local population.

There are also moves to get a new Leuser province set up, on the grounds that successive governments have done little to help the indigenous Gayo, Alas and Singkil people of South and Central Aceh. The military and oil palm interests are rumoured to be behind this initiative, as well as local activists. However, the provincial government (now with new Special Autonomy status) and Jakarta are strongly opposed to any splitting up of Aceh.

Medan-based NGO Masyarakat Peduli Leuser (Friends of Leuser) has generated much public attention through accusations that the EU-funded conservation project is merely "camouflage" so European mining companies can access the area. The EU delegation in Indonesia and the Leuser Management Program vigorously deny this charge. No previous studies have revealed any mineral deposits. But MPL is determined to get rid of the EU-funded programme and has demanded the withdrawal of presidential decree No33/1998 which formalised the agreement between the Indonesian government and the EU to protect the area through the International Leuser Foundation (YLI).

The LDP's opponents have stooped to some dirty tricks: false reports were circulated in reputable Indonesian daily newspapers that all the Leuser program funding had been withdrawn and its 200 staff had been sacked. EC Ambassador to Indonesia, Sabato della Monica, denied that EU representatives who visited the area were dissatisfied saying, "Despite the difficulties and shortcomings that any conservation project of this size would have encountered, the general conclusion of this visit was that the project was doing an impress[ive] job".

The EU committed a total of EUR 164 million to 'development co-operation' in Indonesia in 2000. By the end of December 2001, EUR 102.2 million was allocated to forest projects and EUR 32.5 million of this was for Leuser. Some European NGOs have criticised the LDP and particularly the EU for the lack of transparency over monitoring and evaluation of project aims against achievements. Questions about how far these substantial sums have benefited local communities are countered by conservationists who emphasise the importance of the Leuser ecosystem's biodiversity and the ecological services it provides to as many as four million people in North Sumatra and Aceh.

In its end of year report, the Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law (ICEL) cited research - commissioned by the LDP- that Gunung Leuser could yield goods and services worth US$17.6 bn over 30 years if it was carefully maintained, but that its value would plummet if over-exploited.

(Source: Media Indonesia 23/April/01; Suara Pembaruan 7/Jan/02; Kompas 31/Jul/01; WALHI Aceh 10/Dec/01& letter dated 13/Aug/01 Jakarta Post 18/Jun/01, 27/Nov/01,1&28/Dec/01; Waspada 22/Nov/01, 7/Dec/01, 2/Jan/02 & 12/Dec/01 cited in UN's OCHA report 14/Dec/01 Antara 1/Oct/01; Kerebok, July 2001; Analisa 22/Aug/01; INCL 28/Oct/01.

Back to newsletter contents    DTE Homepage    Campaigns    Links