EU-funded Leuser project slammed

Down to Earth No. 37 May 1998

European Union funding of the Gunung Leuser National Park and the Leuser Ecosystem is the target of criticism in an investigation by the UK-based NGO, the Rainforest Foundation, published in March 1998. The programme, to protect one of the largest tracts of rainforest in S. E. Asia, was one of three case studies in a report on the environmental and social impacts of European Commission funding in tropical areas.

Although official EU multilateral development aid to 'The South' amounted to US$3.8 billion in 1995, its social and environmental impacts have largely escaped scrutiny. All EU development co-operation funding to Indonesia goes on the forest sector, amounting to over 100m ECU between 1991 and 1996. This included 32.5m ECU for the Gunung Leuser Development Programme. Among the other projects agreed are forest fire prevention and monitoring programmes and the management of commercial timber operations in Berau (East Kalimantan) and on the boundary between South and Central Kalimantan.

The Leuser Development Programme is one of the largest tropical projects ever funded by the EU. Commission officials regard it with pride as a flagship conservation programme. Unusually for Indonesia, the whole programme is under the control of a specifically created private foundation – The Leuser International Foundation (YLI) – not a government department. The YLI implements the Leuser Development Programme via a team of foreigners and Indonesians called the Leuser Management Unit (UML).

The Gunung Leuser National Park and the surrounding area (collectively called the Leuser Ecosystem) occupy 17,000 sq km straddling the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh. This huge expanse of tropical rainforest provides timber, other forest products, watershed protection, drinking water supplies and flood protection to the estimated six million people living in and around it. The mountains, river valleys, lowlands and swamps of the Leuser Ecosystem have a rich biodiversity, including endangered species like the Sumatran rhino, tiger, elephant and orang-utan. The Leuser Development Programme was introduced against a background of problems, most of which still persist. The boundaries of the National Park and the Leuser Ecosystem have not been agreed or marked. Some 15% of the National Park area has been damaged. Many local government officials are opposed to conservation measures, especially within the buffer zone. They want to bring in roads, swamp drainage and more transmigration to promote the agricultural conversion, large privately-owned plantations, commercial logging and industry which they see as 'development'. Illegal logging is a large-scale well-organised business. There are too few Park rangers and legal measures to protect forests are not properly implemented. Management of the logging concessions has been left to the companies, not forestry or conservation officials.

The relatively poor local population has been marginalised by logging concessions, plantations and transmigration. Lack of land rights mean local people have little incentive to prevent the exploitation of forest resources by outsiders or to use them sustainably. Unable to practise their traditional land uses, they are often directly involved in illegal logging, hunting and forest destruction – against their better judgement.

The Rainforest Foundation looked at some 100 EU-funded tropical forest projects and found widespread evidence of poor project design. This could be due to the general lack of consultation in the project preparation stage and little or no community participation. Social and environmental issues were paid given scant attention in project evaluations and reviews. The report complains that "a general veil of secrecy surrounds much of the Commission's work on the EU aid programme". The Leuser Programme is no exception. Access to project documentation was refused by officials in Brussels. Nevertheless, field studies and other sources reveal that the main plans were drawn up without consultation with local government officials. The Leuser Management Unit then tried to implement programme activities without assessing the needs and views of the target communities. Local people do not know or care what the Leuser Development Programme is about and there is a low level of co-operation and participation in its community projects. This is despite the fact that the welfare of and participation by local communities and the development of sustainable economic activities are central principles in the agreement reached between Indonesian government and EC officials in 1993. A participatory approach was a key element in the EU's description of the Leuser Programme's conservation and community development initiatives. Further signs of problems with the Leuser Development Programme are shown by the withdrawal of World Wide Fund for Nature from its projects within the Park. WWF has funded conservation initiatives within the National Park for many years. Its most recent project aimed to reduce the conflict between the Park authorities and local communities which has arisen in surrounding villages. It is no secret that WWF was frustrated by the lack of clearly defined areas of responsibility between different parties involved and by the lack of accountability of the YLI.

As a result of its research, The Rainforest Foundation wants the EU to learn from its mistakes and incorporate remedial action into all stages of future projects. It recommends that the European Commission should: carry out impact assessments for all projects having potential negative impacts; have greater consultation and participation by local communities and NGOs in project preparation, implementation and evaluation; set up an inspection panel to provide independent assessment of people adversely affected by EU projects or programmes; and make all project documentation much more accessible to interested parties.

The report European Commission Development Funding: Environmental and social Impacts in Tropical Forest Areas is available from The Rainforest Foundation, Suite 5A, City Cloisters, 188-196 Old Street, London EC1V 9FR, England (Sources: The EC-Indonesia Forest Programme, 1995; The Rainforest Foundation, March 1998 and other sources.)