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Destiny of Aceh’s Forests under Weak Indonesian Forest Laws

“We should help each other to analyze what will happen in forestry management. Government regulations are uncertain because Indonesian forestry maps have never been compiled into one. As the result, there are four widely differently versions.” 
 
This was the e-mail message from Afrizal Akmal, an activist from one non-governmental organization (NGO), to Muhammad Nizar Abdurrani, Deputy Director of WALHI Aceh, reflecting directly the problems of Indonesian forestry management. 
 
Afrizal Akmal also said that there was never any responsibility for opening forest areas and this has allowed problems in forest management in each locality to be solved without any oversight. It is possible that there is illegal logging by middlemen in administrative agencies of central government who were behind the issuance of permits. This is an easy and convenient way of exchanging forest areas in public spaces because there is no regulation to check forest inventories exhaustively and there are no logging license fees.   
 
While regulations and their enforcement are in confusion, it appears that the National Land Office in Aceh Province continues to process land concessions without checking the facts of the forest areas, and it appears that many land concession permits have been abandoned after the area has been logged and opened. 
 
Afrizal Akmal said that instead of the various forestry management tasks being located in one agency, they are dispersed and work is fragmented with respect to forest mapping, leases, and land transfers. This has never been revealed to the public and is a huge loophole. The government cannot take in hand the problem of forestry encroachment in a timely manner.
 
“We also found that geographical data systems have not been set up correctly according to regulations. As a result, fake documents appear to have been published by National Land Office. In addition, land use fees and fines for deforestation are unclear and unknown to the public. The revelation of forestry regulations has been used as a game, meaning that state institutions are themselves lying. 
 
Finally, Afrizal Akmal expressed his dismay at the vision of the “Green Project” which is a project of the Aceh government to solve forestry problems. In reality, this green vision is merely a change in the management of forest products. 
 
After the peace agreement and autonomy for Aceh under the Indonesian Republic, there have been democratic elections to the Aceh government. Aceh has issued its own forest and land law, which is progressive and conforms to autonomous government. However, it looks like some mistakes are arising because the Aceh government has used this authority to issue permits to mining and plantation companies, which has led to widespread encroachment deforestation. 
 
According to data from Aceh Provincial Permit Office, in 2008 201 companies were registered as owning land rights for cash crop plantations with a total area of 540,839.955 hectares or 9.42% of the total area of Aceh Province. In fact, many kinds of companies have received permits to conduct business: oil palm, cocoa, coffee, rubber, banana, soy bean, livestock, fishery, and orchards. All land used is forest land located all across Aceh Province.  
 
Requests for land use permits under decentralization are easy because many people can request permits era directly from local government without having to bother with other agencies.  The central government in Jakarta requires that it approves requests for permits in protected forests.  However, this law is often violated, such as the case of an oil palm company which received a concession in the Tripa peat swamp forest.
 
“Tripa peat swamp forest is a part of the Leuser Ecosystem, with a total area of 2.5 million hectares, which is part of a National Strategic Area.  Permits must be requested from the central government in Jakarta. But companies that have received permits only have permits issued by local government, allowing them to plant palm oil in the forests. This is deplorable but it is the truth”, said Muhammad Nizar Abdurrani, the Deputy Director of WALHI Aceh said in a subdued tone of voice, as if this was normal for Aceh.
 
The development of mono-crop plantations for oil production is understood as reforestation and not what it really is – one aspect of deforestation. The granting of land concessions gives the private sector the right to use land to produce cash mono-crops. This destroys biodiversity, and degrades the ecology, and importantly leads to conflict.  Many areas are found to be disputed by local people who have traditionally farmed the land. 
 
Ecological systems of peat swamp forests, of which there are many in Aceh Province, are special.  They collect water which has many important functions in the ecosystem, controlling the climate equilibrium and preventing floods and droughts.  Peat swamp forests should be monitored with respect to surrounding areas that have been cleared for cash crops, particularly oil palm companies which have been found to have cut canals in the peat swamp forests to drain water out of the forest.  Conversion to cash crop plantations affects forest retention of water in Aceh, which is being rapidly depleted. 
 
Peat swamp forest or watershed areas are an important target for oil palm plantations. One peat swamp forest which is now facing this problem is the Tripa peat swamp forest in Aceh with is facing a crisis.  Even though the Tripa peat swamp forest is located in the Leuser Ecosystem Zone, it does not have not formal status as a protected area.  Its vulnerable status has led to some companies receiving concessions to plant oil palm in the area.  
 
Although at present some concession areas have not been planted to oil palm, there are plans to open up the forest continuously.  WALHI Aceh has called on the Aceh government to stop issuing new permits for cash crop plantations, to promptly check company performance, to review the issuance of past permits for cash crop plantations, to return to the local people their rights, to declare a temporary suspension of logging, to stop accepting requests for new permits, and to rehabilitate that have been shamelessly degraded by companies and Aceh government agencies who have combined to commit crimes against the forest.     
 
The Leuser International Foundation and Flora and Fauna International Indonesia have revealed data that from 2006 to 2012, the rate of forest destruction in Aceh was up to 23,124.41 hectares per year on average.  The greatest annual forest destruction was located in Subulussalam (up to 3,946.92 hectares), followed by Nagan Raya Regency (2,581.90 hectares), and Gayo Lues Regency (2,064 hectares). These areas are new autonomous districts, with clearly designated forestry areas. However, the effect of autonomy has allowed companies to easily receive permits directly from local government. 
 
“If the damage continues, the impact of natural disasters will increase in violence in the future. In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has predicted alarmingly that if deforestation on Sumatra and Kalimantan continues as at present, the orangutan will be extinct in 15 years”, Muhammad Nizar Abdurrani asserted in a worried tone.   
 
The Deputy Director of WALHI Aceh also stressed the uncertainty of the definitions of forest in various laws. Act No. 41/2009, State Regulation No. 44/2004, Forestry Department Decree No. 32/2001, Forestry Department Regulation No. 50/2009 clearly specify the authority of central government forest areas and forest areas related to provincial government area development plans. But Indonesia forest laws are numerous and complicated, which leads to frequent violations, both intentional and unintentional.
 
Dewa Gumay, another environmental activist, revealed that forestry areas in Aceh overlap.  For example, the perspectives of the Institute of Forestry, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Mines and others, seen on the ground or in their objectives, are completely different.  Forest issues are directly related to the Institute of Forestry, which has the responsibility specifically for forest protection. The Department of Mines has a role in geology and mine reserves.  The Office of Commercial Plantations looks after mapping, both land use and residence.  There are many cases where a permit has been received and investments made, there is doubt and uncertainty because of overlapping permits. 
 
In the case of Tripa peat swamp forest, the Kalista Alam company received a permit to plant cash crops in the peat swamp forest. The relevant government agencies, the Department of Commercial Plantations and the Department of Forestry, had different views. According to the Department of Commercial Plantations, the concession area was not located in a forest area while the Department of Forestry said that the area had already been made part of a protected forest. In the end, this is a matter of unclear laws, and opens a gap for people to take advantage firms without feeling that they are violating the law. 
 
The economic aspect of deforestation shows that it destroys natural resources and forest capacity in terms of plants and animals with high economic value. This affects the local economy where the forest has been a source of income for local people. 
 
Even though there is no official data to calculate the annual cost of damage caused by deforestation and land degradation in Aceh, assessments are based on general grounds such as estimates of land and forest use or deforestation not processed into timber or other products, estimates of reforestation, and estimates of losses due to infrastructure and eco-tourism. In each year, the value of the loss is enormous.   
 
The challenge currently faced by the local government of the Special Region of Aceh is how to set the direction of development which will create balance, fairness and sustainability in natural resource. While the Aceh government is happy with the income from granting forest concessions to plant cash crops to large domestic and foreign investors, resources are being gradually destroyed and problems of pollution, climate change and social conflict disputes are clearly occurring.  This shows that the Aceh government must institute a major rethink to improve policies and laws that will keep pace with the rapid changes that are coming.  
 
Dr. M. Nasir, lecturer in the Department of Environmental Economics of Syiah Kuala University in Aceh Province said that private sector investment in commercial crops was growing.  Attention was paid only to the growth in investment.  There may be negative effects on the environment. A new balance should be made to satisfy both economic development and environmental conservation.  There must also be recognition given to the survival of the economy and well-being of local communities who rely on natural resources for their livelihood. Destruction of forest and land resources will have a direct effect on the community economy.  
 
Usman Hamid from Co-Founder Change Organization Indonesia has stated that the real impact may occur within the next 5-10 years. At present, society may be happy with the results of the initial investment, but there is a need for studies for people to know damage will occur in the future. 
 
Imam Syuja, a community leader in Aceh who has been a member of the Forestry Committee of parliament, said that the result is of forestry management in the Aceh development plan allocated to local people only 1% or approximately 14,704 hectares.  But another one million hectares is allocated for mining, logging, and oil concessions.  In his opinion, the Aceh government should target land for large-scale agricultural production. 
 
The fertile forests of Aceh, which formed the basis of the ancient kingdom and the legacy of the Acehnese people until the present day, are being severely challenged by the encroachment of large-scale invasive commercial crop businesses as in other less developed countries around the modern world where the benefits of resources are changing hands and are being degraded to the point of becoming serious ecological and social problems. 
 
In the midst of confusion and lack of standards in the law and regulations and the weakness and inequality of enforcement, globally important tropical rain forests, which the Indonesian government is proud to call the “lungs of the world”, are under great risk of disappearing as a sacrifice to the unrestrained greed of the capitalist system.  
 
The important question for the people of Aceh, local government in Aceh, and the Indonesian government is to set policies, laws and regulations and an effective system of enforcement to enable defiance to this was of destruction. 
 
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Ruayrin (Nu) Pedsalabkaew was Asian Public Intellectual fellow from 2012-2013. Before attending the graduate school, Nu served as a reporter and investigation journalist for various media in Thailand , such as  Issra News Center, Thai Journalists Association (2005-2006), Prachatai News Bureau (2005), Southern Region Focus Newspaper (2008-2009), Khon Pak Tai Newspaper (2009), Deep South Watch (2011),
 

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the API Fellowships Program, the Nippon Foundation, the central coordinating institution, and/or partner institutions.