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Aceh chief sued over plantation in forest

Jakarta Globe - November 25, 2011

Nurdin Hasan, Banda Aceh – A leading environmental group is suing Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf for allegedly approving a permit for an palm oil plantation inside a protected peat forest.

T.M. Zulfikar, executive director of the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said on Thursday that his organization filed suit at the Banda Aceh State Administrative Court a day earlier.

He said the suit arose from Irwandi's decision on Aug. 25 to issue a permit to palm oil company Kallista Alam for a concession inside the Tripa peat swamp in Nagan Raya district.

"The permit signed by Irwandi is for the conversion of 1,605 hectares of protected forests in the Tripa peat swamp into a palm oil plantation, destroying forests and peatlands protected by prevailing laws that forbid any new permits on primary forests and peatlands," Zulfikar said. "By issuing the permit and violating these laws, the governor could face up to five years in prison."

Zulfikar said he believed that Irwandi had been pressured by interest groups to approve the plantation permit.

"Sources in the provincial administration have stated that this 'uncharacteristic' signing of the permit suggests Irwandi was under heavy pressure to sign it," he said. "That it was issued shows the governor didn't really understand what he was signing."

Zulfikar said that Walhi and other nongovernmental organizations filed the lawsuit to have the permit revoked. He added that they went to the court only after earlier pleas to the governor were ignored.

Kamaruddin, the lead lawyer for the NGOs, said that in addition to the lawsuit, they had also filed a criminal complaint against Irwandi with the National Police on Wednesday.

He added that because the permit was for a concession in a peat forest, it clearly went against a two-year moratorium adopted in May on new permits for primary and peat forests.

The moratorium, formalized under a presidential decree, is part of an agreement between Indonesia and Norway in which the Scandinavian country has committed $1 billion to help Indonesia meet its carbon emissions reduction target.

Kamaruddin said the governor had also breached the 2008 National Spatial Planning Law, which designates the entire Leuser Ecosystem Area a protected zone. "For that reason, issuing plantation permit within the area is a criminal offense," he said, adding that Irwandi could be charged with abuse of power.

He said the affair brought into question Indonesia's commitment to honoring the terms of its agreement with Norway.

Irwandi and the provincial administration's legal affairs head, Makmur Ibrahim, did not respond to a request for comment from the Jakarta Globe.