Plans to devastate legendary Indonesian biodiversity hotspot
The Indonesian Government, which is supposed to be committed to protecting natural forest, is facing a test of that obligation on the Aru Islands, located in the Arafura Sea southwest of New Guinea and north of Australia.
Last year Indonesian forestry minister Zulkifli Hasan said the government was extending a moratorium, in place since 2011, on issuing permits for conversions of natural forests or peatland. The moratorium is crucial to the country’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020 but sugar cane plantations are exempt.
Now Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) is warning that a massive 480,000 hectare sugarcane plantation, which has been approved for development by local authorities – and, for the most part, by Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry – will have a devastating impact on the area’s famed biodiversity.
When 19th Century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace published his seminal two-volume work The Malay Archipelago, he highlighted the Aru Islands as being a biodiversity hotspot. There are 187 islands in the group, 89 of them inhabited, with natural forest cover – equivalent to 12 times the size of Singapore – on 93.5 percent of the 770,000 hectare total area.
If plans by the PT Menara Group are followed through, land clearing will take place on 76 percent of its concession area which is currently forested, resulting in half of the Aru Island’s rain forest disappearing. Conversion to plantation would destroy habitat for various species endemic to the Wallacea region, including birds of paradise, tree kangaroos, black cockatoos, aru-crested cockatoos, and cassowary.
“If the Menara Group moves ahead with their plans for sugarcane plantations and massive conversion of natural forest, it can be certain that biodiversity in both land and the waters of Aru Islands will become extinct,” said FWI campaign co-ordinator Abu Meridian.
Unsurprisingly, given such a potential travesty, the NGO is pointing to less than legal or transparent dealings between the company and local officials. In 2010, then Bupati (regent) of Aru Islands, Teddy Tengko, issued licenses, permits, and recommendations for the use of the 480,000 ha as plantations to 28 subsidiaries of the Menara Group. These were endorsed though a through a recommendation letter filed in July 2011 by Karel Albert Ralahalu, the then Governor of Maluku, which includes the Aru Islands.
FWI say legal violations occurred early on when the Menara Group managed to obtain a Plantation Business Permit (SIUP) before obtaining an Environmental Permit Letter. It says while this is in clear violation of Indonesian Environmental Law No 32/2009, 19 of the 28 companies have already gained clearance approval from the Ministry of Forestry.
One would assume that Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission might have an interest in looking into how these clearance permits were obtained with such aparent alacrity.
NGO campaigners also say large-scale land clearing will have an equally severe negative impact on the lives of local communities and indigenous peoples who have inhabited the Arus for generations.
“The concessions in question take away the rights of indigenous communities over their territories. The livelihoods of local communities depend closely on existing natural resources and tenure security, and both will be destroyed. The local government of Maluku, through the existing land clearing plan, has denied communities continued benefit from fisheries and land use, both mainstays for Maluku community development,” Abdon Nababan, the Secretary-General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago said in a press statement.