Indonesia — The Indonesian government and environmentalists have moved to halt the destruction of a peatland forest after activists warned that the endangered Sumatran orangutans in the area have almost been driven to extinction.
A coalition of local and international conservation groups warned last month that orangutans in the Tripa forest on Sumatra island could disappear by the end this year unless action was taken to stop land clearing using fire by plantation companies.
Palm oil companies have been burning peatlands in violation of Indonesian laws, said Ian Singleton, director for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. The situation is urgent and requires action. The Coalition to Save Tripa, which includes the local group Walhi and Greenpeace, said satellite images from December 26 showed less than 13,000 hectares of the areas 60,000 hectares of forest remained and at least 40 hotspots indicating fires were detected in May.
About 100 orangutans in the area had died as a result of the recent destruction of their habitat, with only an estimated 200 remaining, they said.
There are currently about 6,600 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, according to conservationists.
The Ministry of Environment said it was investigating the allegations that palm oil companies operating in the area had broken laws.
We are looking into whether these companies have conducted an analysis on environmental impacts or other environmental feasibility studies, said Sudariyono, the ministrys deputy for legal compliance.
The governments task force for the UNs Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program said last week that its investigation showed that the fires had been ignited in a systematic well-planned manner. It said the fires were located in a forest concession area granted to the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam and that its activities potentially violated several national laws.
The task force urged the Environment Ministry and the police to investigate and charge those responsible.
In May last year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed a decree committing Indonesia to a two-year moratorium on new clearing permits for an area of around 60 million hectares of virgin forest and carbon-rich peatland.
The move was part of the countrys commitment to the REDD program, which aims to reduce climate change from greenhouse gasses.
But in August, the then-governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, signed a permit to allow Kallista to convert 1,600 hectares of land in Tripa into a palm oil plantation.
Tripa was included in the moratorium map in April last year, but it disappeared from a revised version in November, Walhi group said.
Environmentalists also say the area is part of an area of distinctive rainforest known as the Leuser Ecosystem, which is further protected from development under Indonesias 2008 national planning law, a claim confirmed by the governments REDD task force.
But the state administrative court in Aceh earlier this month threw out a lawsuit brought by the activists against the clearing permit, saying the parties should seek an out-of-court settlement.
The environmentalists have filed an appeal with the high court in the province.
The human resources manager at Kallista, Idris Ginting, denied that the company had used fire to clear the land.
There are many smaller plantations controlled by local people near the area, who dont have equipment so they resorted to burning, Ginting said.
We have the permit from the governor to operate there and I dont see how we can be accused of violating the laws, he said.
Ginting said the companys operations in Tripa had been suspended pending the outcome of the appeal.
Singleton said he was confident that the environmentalists would win the case.
If this case isnt successful, it means law enforcement with regards to environmental violations is just a joke, he said.
The coalition activists also said they hoped the newly elected Aceh governor due to assume office next month, Zaini Abdullah, would revoke the permit.
Using fire to clear forest is illegal in Indonesia, but the practice has persisted.
It has been blamed for many forest fires in recent years, which environmentalists said are threatening the survival of endangered species such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers.
The destruction of peatlands also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.
Indonesia is estimated to be the third-largest producer of greenhouse gasses, largely owing to the rapid destruction of its forests. It aims to reduce the emissions by at least 26 per cent by 2020.
Singleton said his group and local authorities on Friday confiscated a two-year-old orangutan kept illegally as a pet in Aceh Barat Daya district, near the Tripa forest.
On Wednesday the team rescued a large adult male orangutan trapped in a small pocket of forest in Tripa, he said.
We have been forced to take action and rescue this Sumatran orangutan as otherwise he would have starved to death, and many other orangutans in Tripa are facing the same fate, Singleton said.