Can Ecotourism Save Indonesia’s Disappearing Forests? (Page 2 of 4)

003Usher explains that national laws and environmental guidelines are paramount, including mandates to protect the Leuser Ecosystem, but the Aceh Government is under the impression that a “special autonomy” act gives it unbridled authority to break national forest protection laws. He says, “It appears that the National Government is taking a softly-softly with Aceh to avoid disputes.”

A key problem is inconsistency in spatial mapping. While the National Government has the final say, since decentralization in the late 90s, local governments have been producing their own maps and Usher says not all of these are recognised by the national authority. He gives the example of a 2007 concession handed to a palm oil company by the land mapping agency in Aceh. This concession in the Tripa Peat Swamp was marked as protected by all previous moratorium maps and yet the company (Dua Perkasa Lestari) has continued to clear the land, regardless of its environmental significance and concerns over legality.

Usher says efforts are being made to move towards a solution “where all government agencies essentially work from the same baseline data.” But with 40 years of divergent maps to assimilate, this is far from simple. “There is no doubt that progress has been made, particularly with the public perception that maps are public documents and should be transparent.”

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It is also critical to consider the affected indigenous people living near the areas mapped for rezoning.

Campaigners and conservationists assert that lost forest coverage could cause landslides and flash flooding, with serious consequences for local populations. Usher says that Aceh has many steep mountains with fragile soil systems and that a proposed new road network creates risk of major disasters. “The Leuser Ecosystem was not only established to protect biodiversity and threatened species, but also to protect the ecosystem services on which millions of people currently depend.”

Others, however, argue that restraint on industry is a restraint on raising the living standards of the rural poor. Pro-development bodies maintain that expanding industry creates jobs for communities where there may be little alternative economic opportunity.

This reasoning is used by industry representatives opposed to extending the ban on forest conversions. The director of law and advocacy for the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, Tungkot Sipayung, spoke out in The Jakarta Post, saying extending the moratorium will “limit development of labour-intensive palm plantations and palm processing sectors.”

Another sentiment, in opposition to limiting development, is cynicism towards the interventionist role played by industrialized countries. World Growth, a pro-development NGO, contends in a report about the potential impact of the 2011 moratorium on communities, “It is crucial that developing nations be given the same chance that developed nations have benefited from.”  The report points out that in certain regions palm oil is the main or only crop grown, providing jobs in its various stages of production.

Usher dismisses the idea that industry expansion pulls people from poverty as “rubbish.” He uses spatial planning in Aceh to illustrate that land decisions are being dictated by “a few bureaucrats and private interests.” He goes on to note that there is limited land for productive agriculture in the region and that most people live on the north/northeast coastal plain, where most rice production takes place. This rice farming hinges on irrigation from inland forests. “If these forests are converted to other uses (such as oil palm or mining), many of these people will suffer increased poverty. There is a reason that developed countries like Japan and Taiwan (with a similar landscape to Aceh) have 60-70% forest cover: they have long realized that they need this level of forest cover to sustain their development.”

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