Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Despite various commitments from global brands and the government to protect Indonesia's Leuser Ecosystem, home to some of the rarest species on Earth, development of new palm oil plantations and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands continue in the ecosystem, a new investigation finds.
At the same time, deforestation in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, a part of the Leuser Ecosystem, continues to increase, in line with the development of new canals.
The investigation using satellite and drone footage by the U.S.-based NGO Rainforest Action Network (RAN) found at least 26 kilometers (16 miles) of new canals have been dug so far in 2023, up from 9 km (5.6 mi) in 2022.
RAN forest policy director Gemma Tillack said vegetation has been bulldozed and peatlands have been drained to make way for the new canals in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, one of the largest remaining peatland forests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
While new plantations appeared to have not been established yet along the new canal channels, there was a mosaic of illegal oil palm around the locations of the new canal, she said. "So it's clear the intention is for palm oil," Tillack told Mongabay.
The expansion of illegal canals into the reserve is "orchestrated" by local elites, who wield power and have access to the resources needed to establish significant oil palm plantations, she added.
A recent investigation by an association of environmental journalists in Aceh province found that there were elites with capital who have paid locals to clear lands and plant palm oil in the wildlife reserve.
There were an estimated 300 hectares (740 acres) of illegal plantations within Rawa Singkil.
The new canals will likely lead to an increase in forest loss in the wildlife reserve, RAN said.
In 2022, the reserve lost 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of primary peat-swamp forest – an area twice the size of New York's Central Park, according to data from the forest loss monitoring platform TheTreeMap. This is 12 times greater than in 2021, making it the highest level of forest loss recorded in the ecosystem since 2001.
This year has also seen an increase in deforestation, with 372 hectares (919 acres) of forest loss recorded within the first sixth months of 2023, a satellite imagery analysis by the Aceh-based environmental NGO Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA) showed.
This marked a 57% increase from the same period in 2022.
RAN said the increase in forest loss was the opposite of trends cited in most primary forests across Indonesia.
The deforestation in Rawa Singkil also raises concerns over the future of the orangutans that live there. The wildlife reserve is home to the densest population of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) anywhere on the island: 1,500 recorded individuals, or 10% of the species' total population. This earns the reserve the moniker "orangutan capital of the world."
Tillack said the continued deforestation put critically endangered species like the Sumatran orangutan at risk of extinction in the wild.
The reserve is also home to some of the last remaining intact habitat for critically endangered Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae), rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) and is among the world's top priority landscapes for conservation because of its carbon-rich peat soils.
Lukmanul Hakim, the geographical information system (GIS) manager at HAkA, said if the development of new illegal plantations and ongoing destruction of the wildlife reserve are not halted, there could be conflicts between wildlife and humans.
The ongoing deforestation is also disastrous to the climate due to the huge amount of carbon stored in the peat-swamp ecosystems released into the atmosphere, he added.
Despite the critical roles the reserve plays in biodiversity and climate, there is no current program designed to end deforestation for palm oil expansion in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, Tillack said.
"This is a crisis," she said. "There is an urgent need for intervention to halt further deforestation and canal development within the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve."
RAN has called on global brands like Procter & Gamble, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever to address the development of new canals and illegal plantations as they source from plantations inside the wildlife reserve.
These brands are exposed to the illegal palm oil as they reportedly source from traders and mills that buy palm fruit from illegal plantations inside the reserve.
This, despite the brands having adopted "no deforestation" policies that should prohibit them from buying palm oil that comes from forestland that was cleared after a certain cutoff date, typically Dec. 31, 2015. These same brands had also pledged to end deforestation in their supply chains by 2020, as members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a global organization of 400 consumer goods companies.
RAN noted that the CGF has failed to issue any statements detailing the actions they have taken in response to the crisis in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.
Out of the 400 GCF members, only Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Nissin Foods have issued public responses to the revelations of illegal plantations in the wildlife reserve. But the actions taken by the three brands weren't enough, RAN said.
Unilever, for instance, has banned two of the mills that source illegal palm oil from the wildlife reserve – PT Global Sawit Semesta and PT Samudera Sawit Nabati – from its supply chain.
However, it hasn't banned two other mills found to be sourcing illegal palm oil – PT Runding Putra Persada and PT Bangun Sempurna Lestari.
Failure of major brands to respond to the ongoing deforestation in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve might make it difficult for them to sell their products in the European market, RAN said.
This is because the EU recently enacted a new law that bans the trading of commodities like palm oil that come from deforestation and illegal sources in the EU.
Afifuddin Acal, a campaigner at the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Walhi, said illegal clearing inside the wildlife reserve is rampant due to lack of law enforcement against the local elites behind the palm oil operation.
One of the local elites is Mahmudin, who is reported to control 4.5 hectares (11 acres) of illegal plantations inside the wildlife reserve.
RAN said a significant area of the new canal development is concentrated in the area to the north of Ie Meudama village, where palm oil from Mahmudin's illegal plantations is collected.
The three largest palm oil traders in Indonesia – Musim Mas, Golden Agri-Resources and Wilmar – confirmed that they'd indirectly sourced from Mahmudin's illegal plantations within the wildlife reserve.
These companies operate the refineries that buy palm fruit from illegal plantations and process it into the various forms of palm oil that then go into consumer goods like snack foods, personal care products and instant noodles.
To remedy the harm done by the illegal activities, the traders had secured a commitment from Mahmudin to relinquish all of his illegal plantations inside the wildlife reserve to the authorities for restoration.
Mahmudin had to show evidence of this in the form of a letter of handover and a receipt of the land release by the end of June this year, with an audit to confirm that this had actually been done.
But the agreement fell apart in June, when Mahmudin was not willing to sign a commitment letter to release the 4-hectares (10 acres) of illegal plantations.
As a result, the three traders have decided to remove Mahmudin from their supply chain and to inform their suppliers in the region to not buy palm oil from Mahmudin.
Taufik Syamsuddin, a forest ecosystem analyst at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said in July that the owners of illegal plantations in the wildlife reserve would have to pay fines as punishment and return their concessions to the state.
This applies to plantations that had been established illegally before the 2020 law on job creation, an omnibus law that brings sweeping changes to the country's regulations, including those related to the environment and agriculture.
Taufik said the government had established a task force to solve the issue of illegal palm oil inside conservation areas like Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.
As a start, the government will need to identify all the parties involved in the illegal operation.
"Believe that the government is present to solve [the issue]. We're not standing still. We're not just watching. We will solve this. We will find the solution," Taufik said as quoted by Kompas newspaper.