Groundbreaking ruling against the destruction of Tripa peat swamp forests!

Large areas of the Tripa peat swamp forests in Sumatra - crucial orangutan habitat and part of the protected Leuser Ecosystem - have been cleared for oil palm plantations. Once home to 3,000 orangutans, there are now thought to be just 200 left here. 

In 2012, fires swept through Tripa, illegally and deliberately set by palm oil companies. Following a worldwide outcry, the Indonesian government launched an investigation. The legal battle has been extremely lengthy, but on 8th January 2014 one of the companies responsible, PT Kallista Alam, was found guilty by a court in Aceh. They have been fined 114.3 billion Rupiah (approx. USD 9.5 million) as compensation and 251.7 billion Rupiah (almost 21 USD million) for restoration of the affected forests. Four more companies are also undergoing court cases for their role in the destruction of Tripa.

Tripa devastation

The following statements are excerpts from a press release issued on 9th January 2014 by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme:

Kamaruddin, a lawyer working with communities in the Tripa region reiterated, "This decision should serve as a wake up call to any company thinking of investing within the Leuser Ecosystem, a National Strategic Area, that they could suffer the same fate as PT Kallista Alam. It should also be a reminder to others who deliberately burn forests or allow forest burning within their concessions, regardless of whether or not they are working inside the Ecosystem's boundaries, that they could also be prosecuted. The Judge's decision in this case clearly illustrates a move towards improved law enforcement against environmental offenders in the region."

 The company, PT Kallista Alam, first came to international attention in August 2011, when former Governor of Aceh Province, Irwandi Yusuf, issued a new 1,605 ha oil palm concession permit within the legally protected Leuser Ecosystem, an area renowned for hosting the highest densities of orangutans found anywhere on earth, sparking an international outcry.

Subsequently, over 1.5 million people signed online petitions calling for greater protection of Aceh's Forests, currently under enormous threat due to a controversial new spatial planning law issued by Aceh's Parliament on December 27th {2013}. These petitions are further supported by some of the world's leading scientists and conservation experts, who have written to Aceh's present Governor, Zaini Abdullah, urging him to nominate the Leuser Ecosystem as a World Heritage Site, due to its unique and irreplaceable biodiversity. The Leuser Ecosystem is the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans can be found living together in the wild and was listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as one of the ‘World's Most Irreplaceable Protected Areas' in an article in the journal Science, in November 2013.

Dr Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutran Conservation Programme, highlighted the critical importance of the area. "Tripa is one of only 3 remaining peat swamp forests left containing orangutans in Sumatra and its impossible to overstate the importance of protecting every last hectare of each of them. Orangutan densities can reach as high as 8 per square kilometer in these areas, compared to an average of around only 1 or 2 per square kilometer in dryland forests. These peat swamps have justifiably been referred to as the ‘orangutan capital of the world'. The Leuser Ecosystem too, offers the only real hope of survival for Sumatra's other key iconic megafauna, the Sumatran tiger, rhino and elephant, as well as its orangutans. Yesterday's ruling is of course extremely welcome, but the level of interest in Tripa and the Leuser Ecosystem worldwide shows clearly just how seriously concerned the international community is right now about the fate of these forests and their globally important biodiversity", he emphasised.

"The Leuser Ecosystem provides countless locally and globally important environmental services too", explained Graham Usher, Landscape Protection Specialist with the Swiss based PanEco Foundation. "For Aceh alone these have been valued in excess of 400 million dollars per year, and the region's contribution to mitigating climate change, through its carbon sequestration function probably stretches into billions of dollars. It is very encouraging that companies and decision makers destroying these services in Indonesia are finally being held accountable for the economic damage their illegal activities cause, and all credit is due to the Ministry of the Environment for their efforts in prosecuting this case. The court's decision is indeed a huge victory, and represents one significant step in the right direction. But I think many more such steps are needed before we will really see a change in the behaviour of companies and officials." added Usher.

"Aceh's Parliament is right now pushing a new spatial land use plan which they recently legalised with a new Provincial Government Regulation, known locally as the Qanun RTRW Aceh". Explained Muhammad Nur. "The Qanun completely ignores the protected status of the Leuser Ecosystem, simply so they can open up large areas of protected forests for road building, mining, palm oil and timber concessions. This will, in effect, end Aceh's chances for long-term sustainable development, as it will cause further destruction of critical watersheds, leading to ever more frequent flash floods, landslides, and other environmental disasters. The companies lobbying for this new plan, and the Aceh Government themselves, should be held accountable for all the damage that will ensue. We hope yesterday's result will serve as a strong warning that if you destroy our forests, we are not afraid to fight back" he stressed. "We thank the judge for delivering a just and fair verdict in this case, and all the people around the world who have been calling for enforcement of National Laws protecting the Leuser Ecosystem. This will be a long battle, but it is one we simply cannot afford to lose, no matter what the cost." He concluded.

Yesterday's groundbreaking verdict is the result of just one of several civil and criminal prosecutions underway against PT Kallista Alam and four other oil palm companies with concessions in Tripa, namely PT. Surya Panen Subur II, PT. Dua Perkasa Lestari, PT. Gelora Sawita Makmur and PT. Cemerlang Abadi. Each faces the possibility of serious financial consequences as a result of their illegal clearance, burning and drainage of Tripa's unique peat swamp ecosystem. Some of the company Directors and senior management also face the prospect of prison terms in cases against them for their actions on the ground. 

HUGE congratulations to everyone who has fought this long battle - our friends in Sumatra and everyone who signed the petitions and took action for Tripa!

Background Information

The Sumatran Orangutan Society supported a coalition of conservation organisations (SOCP, YEL, Walhi, Greenpeace Indonesia and Sawit Watch) in urgently appealing for the Indonesian government to put a stop to the destruction of Sumatra's Tripa peat swamp forests. 

The Governor of Aceh is alleged to have given permission to palm oil company PT Kallista Alam to convert large areas of Tripa to plantations, despite the forests being protected by Indonesian laws and international commitments. The area is part of the protected Leuser Ecosystem and is critical orangutan habitat, hosting among the highest densities of orangutans in the world. It was also shown as off-limits to development in a map defining areas protected by the Indonesian President's moratorium on deforestation, created as part of a $1 billion deal with the Norwegian government.

Fire Tripa Night 260312

Previous Updates (2012):

13th April: GRASP Patrons Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, Richard Wrangham and Russell Mittermeier have written to the Indonesian President, asking him to take action to stop the destruction of the Tripa peat swamp forests, and save the orangutans living there.  Click here to read the letter.

17th AprilThe Indonesian government's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) task force has declared that it has evidence that the forest clearance in Tripa is breaking several national laws and regulations, including the use of fire to clear the land, and the destruction of peatlands. They have demanded a full investigation by the Environment Ministry and police.

Orangutan Resuce Image18th April:  A specialist rescue team from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL) and BKSDA Aceh (the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s nature conservation agency in Aceh) have successfully rescued a large adult male orangutan trapped in a small pocket of forest in the Tripa peat swamps, surrounded by encroaching oil palm plantations. The SOCP rescue team say that he would have either starved, or been killed if he had wandered into the plantations in search of food.

6th May:  Indonesia's Ministry of Environment and National Police have finally begun a field investigation into the destruction taking place in the Tripa peat swamp forests. The Head of the Ministry of Forestry has even visited Tripa to see the damage for himself.

15th May: The Jakarta Globe today reported that the Ministry of Environment has been busy collecting evidence to launch a criminal investigation against the companies responsible for forest destruction and burning in Tripa. One of the companies involved, PT Kallista Alam has apparently denied any responsibility for the fires which were raging in March. The acting head of Nagan Raya Regency - where Tripa is located - has also demanded a stop to the forest clearance whilst the investigation is being carried out.

22nd May: The Indonesian government has declared that Tripa will be re-listed as a protected area. Already part of the protected Leuser Ecosystem, this announcement comes as part of an investigation into the illegal destruction of these peat swamp forests by a series of palm oil companies. A team of investigators have found evidence of clearance by burning, and next week will be questioning representatives of the companies involved. This is very positive news, but we still need to keep up the pressure on the authorities to see this case through to a prosecution of those responsible for the destruction.

5th September:  Judges in the High Court in Medan have demanded that the Governor of Aceh must revoke PT Kalista Alam's permit in Tripa. This means that the company, which has been shown to be directly linked to the fires burning these forests to the ground, must immediately cease all operations. 

Dateline on SBS TV in Australia have also aired a film about orangutan conservation and fighting forest destruction in Sumatra, featuring the Tripa story and Dr. Ian Singleton - you can watch the report online.