The Leuser Ecosystem protected area (KEL, Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser) on the island of Sumatra is one of the largest and most important nature reserves in Indonesia. KEL is named after its highest mountain, Gunung Leuser (3,404 meters). Nearly 90 percent of the ecosystem is located in the autonomous province of Aceh, the rest in North Sumatra province.
Its coastal landscapes, lowland and montane rainforests, peatlands and swamps are among the most biodiverse in the world: 8,500 plant species have been documented, including tropical trees such as meranti (Shorea sp.), damar (Hopea spp.) and keruing (Dipterocarpus spp.). The world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia, also thrives here.
Leuser is renowned for its wildlife, and is the last place on Earth where four iconic mammals – the orangutan, the very rare Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhino and the Sumatran elephant share the same habitat. At least seven cat species are at home there, including the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), the Asian golden cat (Felis temmincki) and the marbled cat (Felis marmorata). Other mammals include Indian wild dogs (Cuon alpinus), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and Sumatran serows (Capricomis sumatrensis).
Gunung Leuser National Park, which was founded in 1995, encompasses a number of wildlife reserves and covers an area of roughly 10,000 km² – the core of the 26,000 km² Leuser Ecosystem. Agriculture and human habitation is allowed in the buffer zones, but not destructive industries.
The Leuser International Foundation is responsible for the protection of KEL and has received €50.5 million in support from the EU.
Illegal logging funded both sides of the Aceh conflict (1976-2005). By the end of the Suharto regime in 1998, one quarter of the Leuser Ecosystem had been destroyed. Negotiations in the wake of the devastating tsunami December 26, 2004 brought peace but led to a dramatic increase in logging. Local environmental organizations estimate that only half of the Leuser Ecosystem is still forested, and of that only five percent is still primary forest.
According to NASA satellite data evaluated by the University of Maryland, more than 300 km² of rainforest were destroyed between 2002 and 2008. Between 2008 and 2013, however, the rate of destruction more than doubled to 803 km² according to Global Forest Watch.
One direct consequence of deforestation – apart from the loss of rainforest, biodiversity, clean water and carbon sequestration – are the terrible floods that frequently strike Aceh.
Road construction (Ladia Galaska, a road system through the KEL and partly still under construction) is a serious threat to the very existence of the ecosystem by providing easy accessibility to previously remote regions.
International responsibility: palm oil
Oil palm plantations have been established in numerous places in the Leuser Ecosystem in recent years. In many cases, they belong to former independence fighters and local politicians.
Palm oil from Aceh is sold on the world market. Rainforest Rescue worked to bring PT Kallista Alam, the palm oil company that partly cleared and torched the unique Tripa peat swamps to plant oil palms, to justice.
A study by the Indonesian NGO Greenomics published in May 2015 documented how Aloer Timur – a company that supplies major palm oil distributors Musim Mas and Wilmar International – is clear-cutting large tracts of the Leuser Ecosystem. While the clearing of forests in Leuser violates the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) signed by both companies, neither Musim Mas nor Wilmar International have have ended their business relationships with Aloer Timur since the publication of the report.
The provincial government adopted the Aceh Spatial Plan (Qanun RTRW 19, 2013) regulating land use in 2013. Astonishingly, the plan makes no mention of the Leuser Ecosystem – nothing stands in the way of new plantations, road construction and other destructive activities in the protected area. Conservationists and Aceh residents have protested and the Ministry of Home Affairs in Jakarta has called on the governor to withdraw the Aceh Spatial Plan, without success.
Class-action suit against Aceh province
Aceh’s association of indigenous peoples (JKMA), NGOs and dedicated citizens have been resisting the destruction of Leuser for years. International groups have also joined the struggle against the provincial government.
The Aceh Citizen Lawsuit Movement (Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat, GerAM) has filed a class-action lawsuit against Indonesia’s Ministry of Home Affairs and others before the Administrative Court in Jakarta calling for the cancellation of the Aceh Spatial Plan.
GerAM is basing its suit on the fact that the Aceh Spatial Plan does not list certain areas of the Leuser Ecosystem as protected areas. These include the Tripa swamps, habitat of the Sumatran orangutan. According to GerAM, the spatial plan also violates national law. “Business interests are behind this,” say the plaintiffs.
The environmental network WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) had already taken the matter to the Supreme Court in Jakarta in 2014. Their suit was rejected, however.