GRASP Calls for Orangutan Protection in Sumatra

02nd Apr 2012 Press Releases

The Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) today expressed “grave concern” over an alleged illegal palm oil concession and man-made fires that have affected rainforests in northern Sumatra and threatened to wipe out entire populations of orangutans living in the region, and called on the Government of Indonesia to enforce laws protecting orangutans and their habitat.

The fires – which were started to clear land for palm oil expansion in Sumatra’s Aceh Province —have ripped through the Tripa peat swamp, home to a spectacular range of biodiversity within the protected Leuser Ecosystem. The region is protected under Indonesian law, and was declared off-limits to agricultural development through a Presidential moratorium on new plantations in primary forests and peatlands that was announced in 2011, as part of Indonesia’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions, with support from the Government of Norway.

Nevertheless, Aceh’s former governor signed a permit last August that allowed an Indonesian palm oil manufacturer to set up a plantation in Tripa. Several weeks of fires have destroyed over 3,000 hectares of rainforest, and experts believe the estimated 300 Sumatran orangutans in the area could soon be lost.

“It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears from the Tripa swamps forever,” said Dr. Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation programme (SOCP).

Only about 6,300 orangutans exist on the island of Sumatra. The IUCN classifies Sumatran orangutans as critically endangered.

GRASP, a unique alliance comprised of member nations, conservation organizations, United Nations agencies, and private supporters, was created in 2001 to protect great apes and their habitat in Africa and Asia.

In 2011, GRASP released a report, Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra, that called Tripa an “incredibly important area for conservation.” That same report indicated that the Leuser Ecosystem rose in value by 71 percent if economic benefits derived through conservation were adopted in favor of traditional agricultural conversion.

The Leuser Ecosystem is classified as National Strategic Area for Environmental Protection under Indonesia’s National Spatial Plan, and is an essential part of the country’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) programme. The Leuser Ecosystem constitutes the buffer zone for the Leuser Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, as designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), respectively, in 1981 and in 2004.

Tripa Forest Fire
Forest Fire in Tripa, Sumatra

In addition to massive biodiversity loss, the Tripa fires are releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The Tripa peat swamps play a crucial role in storing harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and represent up to five times the storage potential of a palm oil plantation.

The alleged illegal concession prompted a consortium of conservation organizations, led by Friends of the Earth Indonesia, to file suit against local government officials for issuing a permit to allow palm oil plantations to be developed in the area. On April 3, a regional court refused to rule because the parties had not first attempted mediation.

“While we recognise the need for the palm oil industry to also grow, signing an agreement with a palm oil company to allow the conversion of protected peatland into palm oil plantations, very clearly breaks the moratorium,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, chairman of Indonesia’s REDD+ Task Force, in an interview with Reuters.

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