Junaidi Hanafiah, Aceh Besar, Indonesia – Conservationists say a road project at the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra Island poses a threat to critically endangered wildlife, but the government says it's a vital part of the region's economic development.
Two stretches of road, running a combined 99 kilometers (60 miles), are being planned as part of a highway that will cross the province of Aceh and run a total of 444 km (276 mi). One stretch will run between the districts of Aceh Besar and Pidie, and the other from Pidie to Central Aceh.
Both will cut through protected forest in the Ulu Masen ecosystem, an area spanning 750,000 hectares (1.85 million acres) and known for its rich biodiversity that includes critically endangered Sumatran tigers, elephants and orangutans. The ecosystem is also a key source of freshwater and livelihood for the estimated 130,000 people who live on its fringes.
Carving roads through this wilderness will fragment one of the last major habitats for many of these species and lead to greater human encroachment into the ecosystem, conservationists say.
"People will race to clear land for farming, which is one of the forms of illegal encroachment that the government will fail to stop. That's our concern," said Muhammad Nur, director of the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
"There are a lot of downsides" to the road project, he added. "The government will be overwhelmed with handling those conflicts, and that's not including the increase of potential for environmental disaster due to forest-use change."
Nearly 40% of the Ulu Masen ecosystem constitutes lowland forests, historically the most prone to deforestation and degradation across Sumatra, Nur said.
He called on the Aceh provincial government to review the road development plans in light of the potential for environmental damage.
"The government of Aceh has a responsibility to safeguard the protected forest area," he said.
The Ulu Masen ecosystem isn't a single swath of protected forest. Instead, it's a patchwork of protected areas interspersed with production forest, classified as being eligible for logging.
It sits near the northwesternmost tip of Indonesia, a remote area in a province that for decades missed out on development because of an armed insurgency. The planned roads will help connect once-remote communities to the rest of Aceh and Sumatra, giving a much-needed boost to local livelihoods, the government says.
"Better road access will support the economy of the people in the area," Basuki Hadimuljono, the minister of public works, said recently.
The Aceh government says the road developers have secured the necessary permits to clear forest and are expected to begin work later this year. They have also secured a combined $5.4 million in funding for construction this year, out of an estimated total of $51 million needed to complete these two stretches by 2024.
The Aceh government says the road project is among its top development priorities over the next few years.
"For so long, people [from Aceh Besar and Central Aceh] who want to get to Pidie district have to take another road that requires traveling a longer distance," said Elvi Roza, the public works ministry official in charge of road projects in Aceh.
[This story was first reported by Mongabay's Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on March 28, 2020. Translated by Basten Gokkon.]