Sumatran habitat for tigers, orangutans gets a partial reprieve from development

  • The Aceh provincial government has vowed to protect Gunung Leuser National Park, the core part of the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, by canceling infrastructure projects in the park.
  • However, questions linger over the future of the remaining part of the wider ecosystem, where planned infrastructure projects remain unaffected by the latest pledge.
  • Activists have called on the provincial government to recognize the wider Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh’s spatial plans so that the region is excluded from any infrastructure development that could threaten the habitat of the many endangered species living there.

JAKARTA — Officials in the Indonesian province of Aceh have vowed to safeguard the last known habitat shared by tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants, but concerns abound that the proposed protections are limited in scope.

The provincial government, which enjoys a degree of autonomy from the central government in Jakarta, has declared there will be no infrastructure projects developed inside the Gunung Leuser National Park. The park is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the only known habitat on Earth home to critically endangered Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sondaica), orangutans (Pongo abelii), rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus).

Specifically, officials are revoking a plan to drill for geothermal energy in the park, as they seek to remove it from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. The park has been on the list since 2011 due to ongoing destruction of its rainforest ecosystem.

“In accordance with Aceh’s spatial plans, there [will be] no infrastructure development inside the Gunung Leuser National Park,” Aceh Deputy Governor Nova Iriansyah saidas quoted on the provincial government’s website.

He issued the statement in early April during a meeting with a team from UNESCO, which visited the region to monitor the progress of the government’s plan.

“Hopefully with this meeting, our conservation effort can be improved so that Gunung Leuser National Park is no longer categorized as a world heritage in danger,” Nova said.

But the pledge applies only to the park, which accounts for just a third of the 26,000-square-kilometer (10,040-square-mile) Leuser Ecosystem. Concerns remain over the future of the rest of the ecosystem, including its ecologically important lowland forests and peat swamps, which are still technically open to development under the provincial government’s land-use plans.

Gunung Leuser National Park is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, in Aceh province in northern Sumatra.

Beyond the park

The provincial government’s plan to nix geothermal drilling applies only to a project being run by PT Hitay Panas Energy, a local subsidiary of Turkish tycoon Emin Hitay’s Hitay Holdings. Other similar projects remain unaffected, Nova said.

“I can confirm that the [Hitay] plan has been cancelled,” Nova said. “I’ve talked to the governor [about it]. But the geothermal development plans in Jaboy, Seulawah and Bumi Telong will continue.”

Conservationists had argued that the Hitay geothermal project would harm local livelihoods and the environment, threatening the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Sumatran orangutans living to the west and north of the proposed site.

The project had been proposed by the previous provincial administration to support the central government’s push to add 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity to Indonesia’s power grid by 2019.

Aceh currently has just three power plants, which generate a combined 160 megawatts of electricity — far short of average demand of 250 megawatts, and peak demand of 360 megawatts. As a result, the province is reliant on some 180 megawatts of power produced in neighboring North Sumatra province. To boost its energy self-reliance, the Aceh government has proposed various energy projects, including the now-cancelled Hitay geothermal project.

There are also at least two hydroelectric plants proposed for the Leuser area: a 428-megawatt plant in Gayo Lues district, and a 180-megawatt facility in the Kluet peatland of South Aceh district.

Both projects have drawn criticism from environmental activists. The Kluet dam, for instance, will cover 4.4 square kilometers (1.7 square miles) of land, nearly all of it in protected parts of the Leuser Ecosystem. The much larger plant in Gayo Lues, meanwhile, will require 40.9 square kilometers (15.8 square miles) of land, 30 percent of which will fall within protected forests. The construction of power plant also risks the eviction of residents of Lesten village.

On orangutan swings through the tress in Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Other options

Agung Dwinurcahya, an activist with the NGO Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA), said the Aceh government was focused too much on protecting the national park and not the wider Leuser Ecosystem, which he argued was no less ecologically important.

“Even though the park is a part of the ecosystem, but there’s a need for a wider protection for the entire ecosystem. That’s the more important thing,” Agung told Mongabay.

“A lot of key species actually live outside the national park,” he added. “So the potential for infrastructure development to disturb these species is huge, because many key species like elephants, tigers and orangutans live outside the national park, but within the Leuser Ecosystem.”

Further fueling activists’ concerns is the fact that the Aceh government’s 2013 spatial plan makes no mention of Leuser, despite the fact that the ecosystem is a nationally protected area. Local officials have argued that, under its special autonomy, the province has the right to develop the area, regardless of how the central government views Leuser.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) agreed on the urgency of increasing power supplies to the people of Aceh, but said there were other options that would not involve developing power plants in the fragile Leuser Ecosystem. It suggested focusing first on improving productivity at the province’s three existing power plants.

“If the power plants can produce electricity to their maximum capacity, then they will be able to generate around 400 megawatts,” theoretically surpassing local demand, Walhi’s Aceh chapter said in a statement.

A second option is to prioritize energy projects outside forest areas, which don’t affect the ecosystem, Walhi said.

HAkA’s Agung said that to ensure the Leuser Ecosystem was protected, the area needed to be recognized in Aceh’s spatial plan. He also called for a government regulation to serve as a guideline for managing and protecting the ecosystem.

A presidential regulation is already in the pipeline, awaiting approval.

“There’s already been a draft since 2013, but it still hasn’t been approved yet,” Agung said. “So we’re still waiting.”

An official from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is responsible for synchronizing regulations at the national and provincial levels, said the government in Jakarta should speed up the issuance of the regulation.

Banner image: A Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), one of the Leuser’s iconic species. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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