Photo: buitenzorger / Flickr

Environmental groups in Indonesia are outraged over a Turkish energy company’s plans to destroy a vital section of the majestic Leuser Ecosystem to make way for a geothermal plant. The project would affect the Kappi Plateau region in the heart of the Sumatran Tropical Rainforest World Heritage Site.

The company, Hitay Holdings, recently funded a study by Gadjah Mada University (UGM) that recommended rezoning nearly 8,000 hectares of protected forest. The move would downgrade a protected “core area” of Leuser to a “utilization area” so the geothermal plant could be built and operated.

But environmentalists have a whole bunch of issues with the study, as well as the overall plan to raze thousands of acres of rainforest that host unparalleled biodiversity. Leuser is the last place in the world where tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans coexist in the wild.

“The UGM report could at best only be taken as a quick preliminary assessment of the area and cannot realistically be used as a basis for recommending such a far-reaching and potentially devastating high impact project as that being proposed by Hitay Holdings,” T.M. Zulfikar, an activist from the province Aceh, said in a press release. “The UGM team themselves even acknowledge that much more detailed surveys are needed to form any real conclusions and make sufficiently justifiable recommendations.”

The Buluh River in the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia (Photo: buitenzorger / Flickr)

The Buluh River in the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia (Photo: buitenzorger / Flickr)

Beyond the merits of the report, environmentalists argue that there are better — and less devastating — places to put a geothermal plant.

“Aceh’s own department of mining and energy’s website shows the potential of geothermal energy in the Leuser forests is very small relative to the potential in other parts of Aceh,” Efendi Isma, spokesperson for KPHA, said. “Most of these alternatives are also much closer to Aceh’s main human population hubs, and hence closer to the demand and more efficient. It seems ridiculous that this alternative potential is not exploited first, and that the first project to be developed could end up right in the middle of Aceh’s most precious and irreplaceable protected area.”

The Ministry of Forestry and Environment actually shot down the plan in September, declining to rezone the forest to Hitay Holdings’ liking, and making a point to balance the demand for energy with conservation measures. But now the company is seemingly moving forward, once again pressuring the government to rezone the precious land in Mount Leuser National Park.

If the project is approved, it could devastate the only remaining major habitat corridor connecting the eastern and western forest blocks of the national park, which is part of a National Strategic Area further protected under Indonesian Law for its environmental function. And that could spell doom for the diverse and delicate wildlife inhabiting the region.

“We are confused and extremely concerned by the conflicting messages coming from the Ministry who are supposed to be protecting this area,” Panut Hadisiswoyo, Director of the Orangutan Information Center, stressed. “We completely oppose the rezoning request.”

In order to put the issue to bed, the consortium of environmental organizations is urging Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry and the Environment to reject — once and for all — Hitay Holding’s request to downgrade protected land in the heart of the Leuser Ecosystem, forcing the company to build its geothermal plant elsewhere.

This is only the latest challenge in protecting Lesuer, an area suffering from poaching and deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. In November, a court ruling opened the ecosystem up to deforestation and development, though it is currently being appealed by activists.

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