On Tuesday, the Central Jakarta District Court ruled against a class-action lawsuit to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia; however, environmental activists hope an appeal will overturn the verdict.
The Leuser Ecosystem is a UNESCO world heritage site and contains over 2.5 million hectares of biodiverse nature. Its abundance of trees and peatlands act as a huge carbon sink and the reserve is the last place on earth where tigers, elephants, orangutans, rhinos and more than 180 other mammals live in the wild.
Millions of people in Sumatra rely on the Ecosystem for water, protection against natural disasters and their livelihoods. Unfortunately, logging and palm oil expansion threaten this magnificent natural treasure.
Actor and Activist Leonardo DiCaprio helped build international support and awareness for conservation efforts by featuring the Leuser Ecosystem in his documentary film Before the Flood.
The Aceh Citizen Lawsuit Movement (GeRAM) filed a case in January 2016 to obtain legal mandate that the Aceh Governor, Zaini Abdullah, and his Parliament consider the Leuser Ecosystem in the Aceh Spatial Plan 2013-2030 and to encourage the Minister of Home Affairs to revoke the Plan based on its alleged illegality.
The Leuser Ecosystem is protected as a “National Strategic Area”; however, the Aceh government argues that the restrictions impinge on the region’s ability to develop and, because Aceh is technically a “special territory,” it does not have to follow federal decree.
Despite sound legal arguments and international opposition, judges ruled against the plaintiff, stating that the Leuser Ecosystem is, by default, included in the Plan under the general mention of Protected Areas and that a citizen lawsuit doesn’t have authority to overrule a provincial law.
GeRAM’s lawyer, Nurul Ikshan, rebutted the ruling, arguing that “the Leuser Ecosystem is more than a collection of Protected Areas.” He cited federal designation of the Leuser Ecosystem as a “National Strategic Area” and clear boundaries, established in a 2001 ruling by the Ministry of Forests around the Leuser Ecosystem.
In a press release, Ikshan also stated that GeRAM “did not request that the judges cancel the Aceh Spatial Plan,” but rather that the Minister of Home Affairs should abolish the Plan because the Aceh Government disregarded his recommendations, one of which was to delineate and preserve the Leuser Ecosystem.
Environmental activists, including the former Environmental Minister, Professor Emil Salim, argued that legal precedent to specifically protect the Leuser Ecosystem was established decades ago when native people stopped the Dutch from logging and mining the land in the historic Tapak Tuan Agreement of 1935. Conservation specifications were also established in a Presidential Decree (No.33/198) that noted management practices for the region and several other former regulations.
“We are shocked by today’s ruling. Acehnese community leaders and NGOs have been struggling for years to protect the Leuser Ecosystem against destruction by corporations,” said Farwiza Farhan, founder of the HAkA NGO, in a press release.
“Aceh’s communities wish to move forward on a path to sustainable development. Instead, while the Indonesian government looks the other way, the Aceh government is using their illegal spatial plan to sell out one of the world’s most irreplaceable protected areas… By doing so they will whitewash their environmental crimes of the past and pave the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction and manmade disasters. We won’t rest until this travesty is overturned, the rights of our people are respected, and the Leuser Ecosystem is protected.”
Deforestation and “development” has already started in the Leuser Ecosystem, as an expanding network of roads makes it easier for loggers to clear-cut and hall out trees using trucks and heavy machinery.
“Today’s court decision is deeply disappointing, with fresh evidence of forest destruction within the Leuser Ecosystem continuing to emerge on a weekly basis,” Chelsea Matthews, Leuser Ecosystem Campaigner with Rainforest Action Network, told Planet Experts.
“The stakes are high for millions of Acehnese people whose safety and livelihoods are at risk from this ongoing deforestation. Rainforest Action Network wholeheartedly supports GeRAM’s efforts to use the Indonesian courts to advocate for the well-being of their forests and communities, and we are confident this is by no means the end to this story, as an appeal is already underway.”