Aceh citizens sue government to save Leuser Ecosystem

Sumatra’s priceless Leuser Ecosystem was exposed to industrial development by the government of Indonesia’s Aceh province under a 2013 spatial plan. The plaintiffs call the plan illegal, and they want Jakarta to follow up on its promise to revoke it.

RAN photo deforestation lesuer
Non-profit forest group, Rainforest Action Network took pictures of the forest, which it says was cleared by palm oil company PT Tualang Raya in August 2015 in the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra. Image: Paul Hilton/ RAN

With the filing of a class-action lawsuit today in Jakarta, a bitter fight over the future of one of Sumatra’s last intact rainforests will move to the courts.

Registered by nine Indonesian citizens from the country’s westernmost province of Aceh, the suit — lodged three months after a warning letter sent to the home affairs ministry went unanswered — challenges the legality of a set of zoning laws passed by the Aceh parliament at the end of 2013.

Those land-use laws, known collectively as a spatial plan, were ordered to be revised by the home ministry back in February of 2014.

More than two years later, the unrevised spatial plan remains in force.

“This case is clear-cut,” Nurul Ikhsan, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “All we ask is for the minister of home affairs to uphold its own legal authority and cancel the Aceh spatial plan, and for the Aceh government and parliament to revise it.”

The 2.6-million-hectare Leuser Ecosystem — a stretch of pristine, biodiverse rainforest widely deemed one of the most precious landscapes left on earth — lies at the heart of the dispute. At the national level, the ecosystem has been designated a protected area. But Aceh’s spatial plan fails to mention Leuser, leaving it open for development.

The plan “effectively legalizes numerous new roads, many of which have already been cut and constructed illegally through vast areas of the forests, fragmenting the sensitive ecosystem and opening up new pathways for destruction,” said Farwiza Farhan, chairperson of the NGO Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA), and a plaintiff in the case.

Leuser contains some of the best remaining habitat for the Sumatran varieties of elephant (Elephas maximus sumatrensis), orangutan (Pongo abelii), rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), all critically endangered species. 

The lawsuit, however, seeks to illustrate the human costs of exploiting Leuser’s forests, which are falling at a rate of about 5,500 hectares a year, according to 2011 estimates by the Leuser Ecosystem REDD Project.

From South Aceh district, which overlaps with southern sections of the ecosystem, plaintiff Sarbunis will testify to the devastating floods that 23 mining operations have unleashed on his community.

Abu Kari, an indigenous leader from coffee-rich Gayo Lues district, will discuss the sudden vulnerability of his people’s customary lands, which he says can now be cleared with a single signature from a local government official.

On the other end of Leuser, says Dahlan, the plaintiff from North Aceh, healthy forests are essential to the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who live in or near the ecosystem.

The “countless ecosystem services” provided by Leuser, he said, “serve as an irreplaceable life-support system for the people of Aceh and North Sumatra, providing clean water supplies … in addition to preventing environmental catastrophes such as flash floods and landslides.”

Some observers have wondered if the prospect of aggravating relations with the Aceh government, which enjoys special autonomy as part of a 2004 peace deal that ended a decades-long separatist conflict, might be behind Jakarta’s reluctance to revoke the spatial plan. Farwiza, the HAkA activist, believes such a perspective is too simplistic.

“It is true that the Aceh [government] has this aura because it is ‘special,’ or untouchable, and therefore can do whatever it wants,” she said. “But in reality, the central government has been pretty firm about things like the [separatist] flag and this year’s budget. For some reason they haven’t been that way about the spatial plan. It could be because [the central government] has its own interests at stake.”

Dozens of oil palm companies have already obtained permits to operate in Leuser, but the scale of industry there pales to that of, say, Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra’s Riau province, which has been mostly destroyed by illegal plantations.

In the near future, the panel of judges will examine the class action suit and attempt to initiate a process of mediation. But Abu Kari, the plaintiff, is playing a long game, one for which he said the stakes could not be higher.

“People these days [might think] they don’t need forests, don’t need water,” he said in a recently released documentary. “But those who [really] need them haven’t been born yet.”

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