Michael Neilson, Jakarta – Activists are suing the Indonesian government in a bid to stop development they say will devastate the last remaining area on earth where Sumatran tigers, rhinoceroses, orangutans and elephants live together in the wild.
The world-renowned Leuser Ecosystem in the heart of the Sumatran jungle in Aceh is at risk of being destroyed by a government plan to allow roads in the area and by potential concessions for mining and plantations, campaigners say.
In the latest stage of a nearly two-year bid to have the plan retracted, nine representatives of the group Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat launched a civil lawsuit at the Central Jakarta District Court.
"[The plan] effectively dissolves protection of much of Aceh's remaining tropical rainforests, whitewashing crimes of the past, and paving the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction," GeRAM representative Farwiza Farhan said.
The short-term profits from the developments would not benefit the people of Aceh, she said. "They are after quick immediate short-term gains, but the consequences will be borne by the rest of the community."
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program says the Leuser Ecosystem is crucial for the survival of the Sumatran tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants and orangutans. "If you lose Leuser you lose all four of those species guaranteed," Sumatran Orangutan Program conservation manager Ian Singleton said.
"The... plan basically ignores the existence of the Leuser Ecosystem. It opens up massive areas of lowland forests to potential new concessions for plantations, mining, timber even, and it also legalises many roads that have been cut through the forest... and roads alone are enough to send these species to extinction."
The lawsuit is against both the Aceh government, which activists claim is acting unlawfully by not including the protected ecosystem in the plan, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which they claim has failed to protect the Leuser Ecosystem.
The group claims the Ministry of Home Affairs indicated the plan would need to include protection of the ecosystem but has failed to take necessary action.
They are hoping to have the Aceh government redraw the plan and provide protection for the Leuser Ecosystem and proper environmental analysis.
The Leuser Ecosystem covers more than 2.6 million hectares across the provinces of Aceh and Northern Sumatra and is regarded by conservationists as one of the richest areas of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia. Within the ecosystem is Gunung Leuser National Park, which is listed as a World Heritage Site.
"The Leuser Ecosystem is a jewel in the crown of the world's rainforests – and it's unbelievable that the Aceh government isn't taking stronger steps to help protect it," Professor Bill Laurance, of James Cook University, says.
"In a world in which invaluable ecosystems are vanishing almost daily, the Leuser is becoming one of the most alarming environmental tragedies unfolding anywhere."
The geographically diverse area consists of lowland rainforest, peatlands, mountain ranges, lakes and nine substantial rivers. In addition to providing a habitat to a number of endangered wildlife species it is also a life system for the more than 4 million people, and helps protect the area from natural disasters such as flooding and landslides.
Professor Laurance has been campaigning to have the Leuser Ecosystem listed as a World Heritage Site.
"Virtually anywhere else on the planet, the Leuser would be protected as a World Heritage Site – a crucial element of our global heritage. I think the best hope is that the Indonesian federal government might be persuaded to intervene in Aceh, just as we saw happen in Australia with the establishment of World Heritage sites in Tasmania and the Queensland Wet Tropics. I haven't seen much evidence that the Aceh government on its own is going to the swayed to protect Leuser."
The court will order a mediation between the two parties before the litigation proceeds.