The Leuser Ecosystem

Home to more than 85% of all remaining Sumatran orangutans, the 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem straddles the border of North Sumatra and Aceh provinces in Sumatra. It is one of the largest contiguous intact rainforests in the whole of Southeast Asia and the last place on earth where Critically Endangered orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers coexist in the wild.

The Importance of the Leuser Ecosystem

There are an estimated 10,000 species of plants, including 17 endemic genera; more than 200 mammal species and some 580 bird species of which 465 are resident and 21 are endemics. The economic value of the Leuser Ecosystem to surrounding human populations and the region’s economy, in terms of the many ecosystem services it provides, has been estimated to be as high as USD 31 billion over a 30 year period, if fully protected. In recognition of its incredible importance, for both biodiversity and humans alike, the Leuser Ecosystem was listed in 2013 as one of the World’s Most Irreplaceable Protected Areas.

Despite its undeniable value, the Leuser Ecosystem remains under considerable threat. Besides continual encroachment at its edges, and the ever present problem of palm oil concessions in some areas, several new hydro electric schemes and geothermal energy plants are proposed in critical areas. Numerous new roads are also being cut through the Leuser Ecosystem, fragmenting its forests and opening new access to developers and wildlfe poachers. Working closely with partners, both locally and internationally, we are constantly working to eliminate these threats and to strengthen protection of the Leuser Ecosystem for the future.

Tripa Swamps

"Through a lot of hard work together with our many partners we have achieved some major successes in Tripa in recent years. But there’s still an awful lot left to be done if we are to reclaim and restore this incredible peat swamp ecosystem and its rich biodiversity, and prevent the vast amounts of carbon still stored in Tripa’s peat layers from being released into the atmosphere."

Teuku Muhammad Zulfikar Aceh Conservation Manager SOCP

Protecting the Tripa Peat Swamp Forests

The Leuser Ecosystem’s three coastal peat swamp forests (Tripa, Kluet, and Trumon-Singkil) harbour the highest densities of orangutans anywhere in the world – as much as ten times higher than much of Borneo. These forests also serve as valuable carbon sinks, mitigating climate change. Despite conversion of large areas for oil palm plantation, Tripa still hosts around 200 wild Sumatran orangutans. The SOCP and local partners have managed to prevent the total extinction of Tripa’s orangutan population, and are working to restore the peat swamp ecosystem.

Media campaigns to protect Tripa’s peat swamps gained much national and international attention in 2012, prompting Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment to prosecute five oil palm plantation companies for illegally draining and burning the peat swamps. As a result, one plantation was cancelled in 2013 and the area was secured as a protected peat swamp reserve. Recently we have been restoring the forests and blocking drainage canals in this reserve to raise water levels again. The same company was also fined approximately USD 30 million, and its Director and Field Manager sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Cases against three other companies have also resulted in fines and prison sentences. However, none of the offenders have yet served their prison terms and the fines have not yet been paid.

Our challenge now is to get these sentences carried out, and to ensure a part of the fines that was ruled by the judge as having to be used for restoring the damaged forests and peatlands, is actually allocated for this purpose. In this way justice will be served and we can gradually claim back more of Tripa and continue restoring this critically important peat swamp forest to its former condition.

Opposing Poorly Designed Aceh Spatial Planning

The government of Aceh province has ratified in provincial law a spatial land use plan that ignores the existence of the Sumatran orangutan’s largest stronghold, the Leuser Ecosystem, opening up vast new areas for conversion and effectively legalizing numerous roads already cut through the forests. This plan is widely acknowledged as an illegal document, however, and has never been approved by Indonesia’s central government, as is required under National Law.

There is a broad civil society coalition opposed to this new plan, which not only threatens orangutans and other charismatic megafauna such as elephants and tigers, but also threatens the livelihoods of many of Aceh’s people, since it will lead to increased environmental disasters. The SOCP is part of a broad coalition of advocates and provides technical support in the form of environmental sensitivity analyses to support campaigns. Today, Aceh has informally accepted international funding and technical support to produce a new plan based on proper science based analyses. Still, our efforts must continue to ensure that the existing plan is revoked and redone and an environmental catastrophe is prevented in Aceh.

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