Near a palm oil plantation here, bulldozers and chainsaws can be heard in what is officially �protected forest.� The hilly terrain is not ideal for large scale agriculture, but with few areas left for expansion, the loggers are denuding the land anyway. Aceh, the northern province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is a region made famous by separatist conflict and natural disasters, calamities that long held back economic development but helped preserve one of the world�s richest ecosystems. Now conservationists say the rapid clearing of virgin forest is paving the way for environmental catastrophe, turning critically endangered orangutans, tigers and elephants into refugees, and triggering landslides and flash floods.
Much of the current activity is illegal, they say, but if a land-use plan proposed by Aceh’s governor, Zaini Abdullah, is approved by the national government, currently protected forests could be rezoned as “production forests,” paving the way for logging, palm oil and mining concessions. The Aceh government argues that the change is needed to develop the local economy
“They are very eager to build new roads and open up forests,” said Muhammad Zulfikar, of the Indonesian Forum for Environment, or Walhi, a non governmental organization op- posed to the governor’s plan. “The government must see things not only from a political or investment point of view.
What would be the point of investing if it only leads to natural disaster in the future?”
Mr, Zaini’s proposal is part of a startling shift by an Aceh government dominated by former separatist rebels who once billed themselves as protectors of the region’s natural environment against outside exploitation. It also illustrates a wider problem facing Indonesia, where the tightly centralized power structure of the late authoritarian leader Suharto has given way over the past 15 years to considerable local control.
Nowhere is that more the case than in Aceh, where the 2005 peace accord between the Indonesian government and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement granted the region special autonomy.
“The regional autonomy law gives the power to mayors or regents to manage their affairs, to give concessions, to issue licenses related to economic activity,” said Mas Achmad Santosa, legal adviser to a presidential working group tasked with monitoring Indonesia’s forests.
A recent study by Greenomics, a Jakarta-based policy institute that researches forest management, determined that unauthorized permits for mining and palm oil plantations meaning they were issued by local officials without approval at the national level- have affected more than 520,000 hectares, or 1.3 million acres, of protected forest in Aceh. Elfian Effendi, the executive director of Greenomics, called the proposed Aceh plan “an effort to le- gitimize illegal permit operations.” Protected forests currently account for about 1.84 million hectares of land in Aceh.
There are about 32 million hectares of protected forest throughout Indonesia. Indonesia has one of the world’s fastest rates of deforestation, much of it to make way for palm oil plantations.
From 1990 to 2010, 20 percent of forest area was lost, according to a report by the United Nations.
In 2010, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a freeze on new logging concessions as part of a deal with Norway, which agreed to pay Indonesia up to $1 billion for progress toward reducing deforestation.
In May, Mr. Yudhoyono extended the ban to 2015. But critics note that the moratorium applies only to new concessions, while weak governance and a complex structure of forest management leave nominally protected areas open to exploitation. For example, local governments can request that the National Development Planning Agency rezone protected areas they consider vital to economic growth.
Aceh is a case that stands out because its history of separatist uprisings eventually led to the special autonomy that has left Jakarta hesitant to intervene in how the local government manages nat- ural resources.
“It’s quite a careful balancing act the national government has to do in ac- commodating Acehnese aspirations, but also imposing national law,” said John McCarthy, a senior lecturer on environment and development at Australian National University.
For decades, the separatist rebellion spared Aceh from some of the deforest- ation taking place elsewhere in Indonesia. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed an estimated 170,000 people and left half a million homeless in Aceh alone, further stymied development. But it also paved the way for the peace accord that ended the fighting and put the former rebels in charge of the devastated region.
Irwandi Yusuf, who served as governor from 2007 to 2012, was among them. Known to make surprise visits to logging concessions and comb forests in search of illegal chainsaws, Mr. Irwandi was the “green governor“ who pledged preserve Aceh’s rain forests.
He did so by embracing a United Nations-backed carbon-trading plan that timed to reduce deforestation and inject much-needed money into the economy.
In 2007, he barred companies from clearing primary forest or peatland. Three years later, he proposed a land use plan that would increase the amount of protected forest by 1 million hectares.
In 2011, however, he changed course, allowing the palm oil company PT Kalista Alam to develop a peat swamp inside the Tripa conservation zone, home to endangered Sumatran orangutans.
The move caused an uproar among conservationists, who alleged that the concession violated national law. Mr. Irwandi defended his decision, saying the money expected from projects aimed at seducing deforestation had not materialized, in part because of bureaucratic delays at the national level. One environmental group has taken the case to court. But it marked the beginning of a transition from a leadership focused on environmental protection to one that gave precedence to economic development.
“A lot of people in Aceh never accepted that such a large area of their homeland should be locked up by conservationists,” said Mr. McCarthy. Many had hoped to cash in by brokering deals for access to Aceh’s natural resources. He said Mr. Irwandi had supported conservation as a means of development, but when the carbon scheme failed to pay, heabandoned it. His successor, Mri Zafiii, no more environmentally friendly Shortly after taldng office in June 2012, he dissolved a management body tasked with ensuring conservation inside the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the last places where the Sumatran elephant, rhinoceros, tiger and orangutan live together. Conservationists say it is no longer possible to monitor what is happening in the forests.
“People are up to grab what they can while they can,” said Dr. lan Singleton, the head of conservation at the environmental organization PanEco and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. The program’s orangutan rehabilitation center, built to accommodate about 25 animals, currently has double that number, largely because of the increase in forest clearing, Dr. Singleton said. Mr. Zaini’s proposal to the national government would revise a land-useplan enacted in 2000. Officials who helped draft the proposal say the changes are needed to accommodate expanding human settlements and infrastructure development.
“The population has grown alot since the previous spatial plan was drafted,” said Martunis Muhammad, the head of investment and development financing at Aceh’s development planning agency, Bappeda. “The changes need to account for changes in land-use pattems.”
Under the proposed plan, Mr. Martunis said, some protected forest will be reclassified as production forest, allowing communities to cultivate the land they live on. He concedes that the plan would reduce the protected forest area but says it would not violate a national law designating the Leuser Ecosystem as off limits to human activity “The spatial plan is aimed at guiding the development of Aceh, while protecting the environment,” he said.
Even if the plan is not approved, Dr. Singleton said, without decisive action from the national government, plantations will continue to encroach on pro- tected areas. “lt’s now all open for business,” he said.