News Update: Indonesia’s Aceh Breaches Forest Clearing Moratorium

The governor of Indonesia’s Aceh province has breached a ban on clearing forests that is at the heart of a $1 billion climate deal with Norway, earning a rebuke by a senior government official on Thursday.

The two-year moratorium on issuing permits to log and convert forests, effective from May this year, is meant to protect primary forests and peatlands in the Asian country in a bid to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

About 80 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from deforestation and land use change, with the rapidly expanding palm oil, timber, agriculture and mining sectors driving forest loss.

Aceh’s governor Irwandi Yusuf signed a permit to let PT Kallista Alam to develop 1,605 hectares (4,000 acres) of swamp, which includes protected peatlands, in Nagan Raya district for palm oil plantations, a document obtained by Reuters showed. The company is based in Medan, North Sumatra, but does not have a website or information on ownership.

The head of UKP4, a body monitoring the implementation of the moratorium, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto criticised the decision in a statement emailed to Reuters. Mangkusubroto is a respected technocrat and is head of the government’s oversight body.

“I spent four years in Aceh during the tsunami reconstruction. Opening up Kuala Tripa — an area with high conservation value and home to many animals endemic to Indonesia — is a grave mistake,” said Mangkusubroto, who was the architect of Aceh’s reconstruction after a major earthquake and tsunami devastated the province in 2004.

The Aceh breach illustrates the problem Southeast Asia’s top economy faces in balancing economic development and powerful business interests with conserving nature, as well as a policy gap between the central government and local administrations.

Yusuf, who is expected to run again in a governor election next year, signed the permit on Aug. 25, three months after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed the decree for the moratorium.

“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 peat land into palm oil plantations, very clearly breaks the moratorium,” Mangkusubroto added.

The Aceh government had followed correct procedures for issuing the permit, said spokesman Usamah El Madny.

Mangkusubroto urged the provincial government to reassess the decision and find alternative land for palm oil development.

A local green group, the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), said a court hearing had started this week seeking to have the permit revoked.

WALHI Aceh’s head Teuku Muhammad Zulfikar said opening up the swamp was threatening endangered orangutan.

Norway’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Eivind Homme, told Reuters he was surprised by news of the breach and called on the national government to investigate.

Nigeria, Indonesia and North Korea have the world’s highest rates of deforestation, a global ranking released last month showed.

Courtesy of Olivia Rondonuwu/Reuters Dedcember 8, 2011/photo: Tarmizy Harva (2007)

(Additional reporting by Reza Munawir in Aceh; Editing by David Fogarty and Jonathan Thatcher)

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