A palm oil company is continuing to clear forest in a fast-diminishing elephant habitat in Indonesia’s Leuser ecosystem despite being the subject of two reports into illegal deforestation, according to a prominent environmental organisation.
The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) published a study in July accusing plantation owner PT Agra Bumi Niaga (ABN) of growing oil palms on illegally deforested land in the Leuser ecosystem, in Aceh province, northern Sumatra.
This was the second time in six months that the company had been accused by RAN of clearing rainforests in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. The NGO stepped up its focus on ABN’s nearly 2,000 hectare (4,942 acres) concession, which sits within the Leuser ecosystem, after the Aceh government banned forest clearance for palm oil plantations in the area in June 2016.
Since the Guardian reported on the investigation, the remaining forest in ABN’s nearly 2,000 hectare concession has been reduced from 420 hectares to just 54 hectares. RAN says its latest evidence from satellite imagery and field reports shows ABN cleared 18 hectares of forest in June and razed another 12 hectares in July, seemingly ignoring concerns from campaigners, government and businesses further down the supply chain.
“Twenty-two Sumatran elephants that were living on the palm oil plantation are in dire circumstance,” says Emma Lierley, forest communications manager at RAN.
The Guardian approached ABN for comment but has not had a response.
Link to household brands
Multinational organisations and household brands have been accused of complicity in this destruction through a convoluted supply chain. ABN was supplying a nearby crude palm oil mill operated by PT Ensem Sawita (ES), which has been linked to some of the world’s largest palm oil traders, including Wilmar and Musim Mas.
“[ABN is] clearly unconcerned by [the public exposure], which is why it’s important to create those supply chain links,” says Lierley. She said it was “heartening” to see that some brands with links to this palm oil had expressed concern at the report. But, she adds: “All of them have corporate commitments to not be sourcing palm oil in this way, so it flies in the face of commitments and promises they’ve made to customers and the marketplace”.
Since the publication of RAN’s first study in February, Wilmar International – the first major palm oil trader to adopt a “no deforestation” policy – said [pdf] that its supplier PT Koperasi Prima Jasa “has decided to put on hold purchases from PT. ABN”.
Following the July report, “several brands responded by instructing their suppliers to hold the palm oil mill, ES, to greater account and cease sourcing from the plantation company ABN,” Lierley says.
In August, Musim Mas confirmed that ES had ceased operations with ABN, and started the process to gain Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification for the mill.
But RAN remains concerned about levels of business engagement. “It’s unacceptable that their current business model is to wait until a relatively small NGO will blow the whistle on them,” says Lierley.
Threats to the ‘last place on Earth’
The Leuser ecosystem, which spans 2.6m hectares (6.4m acres) of peatlands and forests, is the last place on Earth where Sumatran orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos coexist in the wild, and is home to more than 200 mammal and 500 bird species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
It lost more than 22,000 hectares of forest cover between January 2015 and April 2017, with more than 1,800 hectares lost in the first quarter of this year, according to the Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (Haka), an Indonesian NGO.
Known as the “last place on Earth” for its unique biodiversity, it’s key to the future of critically endangered species. Forest loss has heightened the human-elephant conflict, leading to the deaths of an estimated 35 elephants between 2012 and 2015. There are now fewer than 1,700 Sumatran elephants left in the wild.
In July the Unesco committee unanimously voted to retain the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, which includes the Leuser ecosystem, on its list of world heritage sites in danger [pdf].
The area is being damaged not only by palm plantations, but also by pulp production and infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams. The Gayo Lues dam in Tampur, for example, has been approved by the committee responsible for reviewing environmental impacts, yet the project would involve flooding 4,000 hectares of the Leuser ecosystem and relocating dozens of families.
“The human disturbance inside this national park is happening at an alarming rate; it is suffering an increasing rate of deforestation,” says Arief Wijaya, WRI Indonesia’s senior manager for climate and forest.
As for palm oil, while companies along the supply chain are responsible for making sure they source sustainably, it is extremely difficult to trace the complete chain. Experts including RAN and local campaigners hope that the Indonesian government’s two-year extension of a moratorium on issuing new licenses to use primary forest and peatland will ease the forest loss, but say more work is needed from a policy level.
“The roles of local government need to be strengthened, and law enforcement should take place more strongly,” Wijaya says. “Without strengthened law enforcement, more attention to government to preserve this ecosystem, it will soon disappear, or at least become very scarce.”
Source: The Guardian