Fate of Leuser Ecosystem depends on decision made now, warns conservationist

MEDAN, NORTH SUMATRA (foresthints.news) - Dr Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, is very worried about the future of Acehs Leuser Ecosystem - and the habitat of the increasingly endangered species within it - and is a passionate advocate of protecting this area from any further encroachment. This much emerged when he was interviewed by foresthints.news in Medan on Saturday (Apr 9).

With respect to the destruction of key wildlife habitats, Singleton was keen to explain that the home range of the areas wildlife was actually far smaller than traditionally thought.

The Leuser Ecosystem is still the biggest single contiguous forest block in the whole of Southeast Asia and the only place with really decent expanses of lowland forest. If you fly over Leuser, youll see lots of really good pristine primary rainforest, but its also high steep mountains. You dont get orangutans, tigers, elephants or rhinos in the high hills - they all exist at the edges at the bottom of the hills.

He went on to condemn the fact that these lowland areas were being decimated by palm oil concessions and road building, compromising the future of the wildlife there.

The conservationist was particularly scathing about the role being played by the local government of Aceh. Within the Leuser Ecosystem, there is the Gunung Leuser National Park, which makes up less than half its size. The national park only contains about 35 percent of the remaining Sumatran orangutans, whereas the Leuser Ecosystem contains 85 percent. So we need the Leuser Ecosystem to be protected, not just the national park.

Right now, the Aceh government spatial plan ignores the existence (of the Leuser Ecosystem). And a few weeks after the spatial plan came out, the Governor of Aceh issued a new regulation explaining how to get permits for concessions within the Leuser Ecosystem, he continued.

He asserted that the Leuser Ecosystem - as a national strategic area with an environmental function - should be shielded by laws prohibiting any encroachment. This, however, is not the case.

Now, palm oil plantations damage the environmental function. So do the roads. Whole agricultural zones depend on the water coming out from the watersheds. Now, if you take the profit of one or two companies, it is foolish to think this makes economic sense, Dr Singleton lamented.

If you look at who actually owns the plantation? They are basically in Medan, not in Aceh. So, the lions share of all the profit goes to Medan. What stays in Aceh are the costs - the costs of landslides, floods, erosion, loss of agricultural production, and loss of lives.

He also bemoaned the misconception that conservation is at odds with local economic development, claiming that the two were actually completely compatible.

If you want long-term economic sustainability in Aceh, youve got to protect the forests. You have to look at areas like Pidie. Pidie is the rice bowl of Aceh. Right now its watershed is almost gone. And as soon as you destroy that for the profit of somebody living in Medan, you destroy rice production for the entire region. Its economically stupid.

The Orangutan Conservation Director went on to provide several other examples of how encroachment on the sensitive ecosystem for short-term gains impacts on both the livelihoods of people as well as the habitats of wildlife. He listed peat swamp conversion and the depletion of high carbon stocks in Tripa, fresh water drainage and consequent sinking land surfaces, indiscriminate killing of fauna and flora, and forced removals of people from their land.

Now, how can you argue that this is in any way in the interests of economic development? Destroying everything you have, destroying the potential for the local communitys long-term economic livelihood, just for greed?

In contrast, Dr Singleton extolled the diversity of Indonesias natural environment and highlighted the potential it offered. Indonesia should be very proud that it still has something like the Leuser Ecosystem. Most of the countries in Southeast Asia dont have anything compared to Indonesia. Youve got one big forest block, in which youve got rhinos, orangutans, tigers, elephants and millions of others species. The potential for tourism and the economy is fantastic.

Once again, he singled out the Aceh authorities for criticism, saying that while local Acehnese leaders and even the central government seemed to recognize the ecosystems value, the local government was essentially rejecting the efforts of all those trying to conserve the region.

You have a unique opportunity to really protect that area. But what you have right now is the government in Aceh. It just doesnt seem to care or understand. Theyre quite willing to open it up and sell it to the highest bidder, he said, exasperated.

If you start encroaching on lowlands in the Leuser Ecosystem, the rhinos will be gone in five years, the elephants in ten years, he continued. Orangutans will be down to a few hundred individuals, tigers to a few dozen in about ten to fifteen years.

Dr Singleton concluded the interview with an appeal. The future for all the species and the future of the Leuser Ecosystem and its potential for Acehs economic prosperity depend on decisions being made right now. If you dont make the right decisions, people will look back at 2016/2017 and say they were the times when everything went wrong. Decisions being made now will determine the fate of the Leuser Ecosystem and all its iconic species. The Leuser Ecosystem has to be given full protection, he exhorted.