Environmental activists have condemned the Aceh administration following confirmation that it planned to reverse a logging ban imposed by the previous administration and clear up to 1.2 million hectares of protected forest across the province.
Efendi, a spokesman for the Coalition of People Concerned for Aceh's Forests (KPHA), said at a media conference in Jakarta on Thursday that the provincial administration's special planning committee had confirmed that the Forestry Ministry had approved of "almost 100 percent" of proposed changes to its spatial plans.
This would slash the proportion of protected forest in the province from 68 percent to 45 percent, and cause the loss of 1.2 million hectares of forest.
"Despite our best efforts, communities and NGOs have been completely excluded from the development process of the new spatial plan, which has totally lacked transparency and accountability," Efendi said.
He said the proposed change in status for protected forests "is closely linked to planned expansion of palm oil plantations and mining."
"There is an inevitable belief that the proposal is simply to legalize illegal activities already taking place as several mining and palm oil concessions overlap the areas scheduled for downgrading," he said.
Activists also called into question the claim by the administration that transforming large swaths of forest into mining and oil palm concessions would lead to greater land availability for local communities.
They noted that the area to be allocated to the community was just over 1 percent of the planned new opening of forest area, or 14,704 hectares, while the largest allocations would go toward mining, at just under 1 million hectares, logging concessions (416,086 hectares), and oil palm concessions (256,250 hectares).
They also said that the latter concessions would cover the entire Tripa peat swamp, a protected area that is considered an important habitat for the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan and that has received much international attention due to illegal clearing there by palm oil companies.
The illegal clearing is still being investigated by the Environment Ministry and the police.
'Extremely dangerous move'
The KPHA also warned that in addition to the new "large-scale exploitative industrial developments," the spatial plan also paved the way for the construction of an extensive road network that would cut through currently protected forests, "further disrupting wildlife and watersheds in the region and opening up even more forests for exploitation, both legal and illegal."
"Famously once known as the 'Ladia Galaska' road network, or the 'Spider Web,' for its appearance, the plan is once again being resurrected, despite being rejected in the past by popular demand due to the severe environmental damage it would bring," the group said in a statement.
Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist previously involved in forest mapping under the previous Aceh governor, Irwandi Yusuf, said: "Areas that had previously been identified as being too high or too steep for conversion, or as having inappropriate soil types and heavy rainfall, so that under existing Indonesian regulations they should be protected forests, have now been identified as targets for logging concessions, roads, mining concessions and palm oil plantations.
"Opening up such forests is an extremely dangerous move. Aceh's people know very well that removal of forests on such steep and unstable soils results in devastating landslides and floods during the heavy rains that Aceh receives every year.
"The plan to clear these forests is a serious mistake that will result in the loss of yet more innocent lives and huge economic losses for the province."
The activists said it was likely that "a number of national laws have been breached" by the administration of Governor Zaini Abdullah in drawing up the proposed changes. Under Irwandi, large-scale logging and forest clearing were prohibited.
Ian Singleton, from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, said it was not just the iconic apes that would disappear if the spatial plan went into force.
"It is now being proposed that Tripa lose its currently protected status altogether, and for this unique peat swamp ecosystem and all its biodiversity and potentially hugely valuable carbon stock to be handed over to the palm oil companies for final, total obliteration," he said.
"The new spatial plan does not even acknowledge the existence of the world-renowned Leuser Ecosystem protected area or the fact that the forests they intend to 'unprotect' are the last main hope for the long-term survival of iconic Sumatran endemic species such as the Sumatran tiger, elephant and rhinoceros. The future of each of these species, and countless others, will be placed in immediate jeopardy if the plans are allowed to proceed."
Singleton added it was ironic that after receiving tens of millions of dollars from the international community to protect its forests, the Aceh administration "now plans to trash them for roads, new mines, timber and oil palm concessions."
Rudi Hadiansyah Putra, the conservation manager for the Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority (BPKEL), said conservationists had worked hard to protect Aceh's forests, and that what the provincial administration proposed doing would set back all their efforts.
"The community understand very well from previous devastating flash floods that clearing the forests upstream has a direct impact on the river flow and their own safety downstream," he said.
"The people of Aceh are no fools. We know that when these unstable areas are cut, it directly leads to increasing natural disasters. If even the villagers know this, why do the Aceh government's advisers not comprehend this simple connection?"