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Exclusive Look Into How Rare Elephants' Forests Are Disappearing

In violation of a moratorium, oil palm grower clears vital habitat in Indonesian biodiversity hot spot.

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A young Sumatran elephant goes wandering in a national park in the south. Legal and illegal land clearing in Sumatra, especially for oil palm plantations, is fragmenting the critically endangered elephants' habitat.

A high-stakes game playing out in a remote biodiversity hot spot pits the palm oil industry against the ecological integrity of the last place on Earth where critically endangered Sumatran elephants, tigers, rhinos, and orangutans live side by side.

At issue is destruction of Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem—a UNESCO World Heritage site at the northern end of Sumatra—principally by forest clearing for oil palm plantations. Roughly the size of Massachusetts, the Leuser’s 10,000 square miles straddle two provinces, with 85 percent in Aceh and the rest in North Sumatra. The region encompasses Sumatra’s largest intact rain forest and a mix of habitats, from high alpine meadows to peat swamps.

Palm oil—the basis of products such as cosmetics and shampoos, processed foods and biodiesel—is versatile and has a long shelf life.

But oil palm plantations gobble up forest—and not always legally. A new report by the NGO Rainforest Action Network details the illegal razing of lowland forest, critical habitat for 22 Sumatran elephants, by oil palm grower PT Agra Bumi Niaga (PT ABN). The clearing likely also affects tigers and orangutans that depend on this forest. The Rainforest Action Network is a San Francisco-based NGO with a 30-year history of campaigns targeting major corporate brands implicated in forest destruction, human rights abuses, and climate change pollution.

While the exact population of Sumatran elephants is unknown, they likely number only between 700 and 1,000, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an environmental network of government and civil society organizations that sets the conservation status of species. It’s estimated that elephant numbers fell by more than 70 percent during the past decade, largely from habitat loss that has squeezed them into smaller areas and cut off their traditional migration routes.

About one-third of the Leuser Ecosystem is protected as the Gunung Leuser National Park. The rest is either forest land with restrictions on use or APL, the acronym denoting land that can be developed. Many areas with the richest biodiversity—the lowland rain forests and peat lands—are outside the national park.

According to the November 2015 Sustainability Brief of palm oil giant Wilmar International, at least 31 plantation companies (24 local ones and 7 associated with larger parent company groups) operate within the Leuser Ecosystem. Smallholder plantations also cover significant areas, producing about half the region’s palm oil, according to the Forest Trust, an international environmental NGO focused on sustainable products.

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Elephants destroyed this villager's home. Scenes like this become more common as human activity squeezes the animals into smaller areas of forest.


Permits for oil palm plantations are allocated in APL land, yet companies and smallholders also establish plantations illegally in protected forest. Even the national park itself isn’t immune: The Wildlife Conservation Society reports that Gunung loses more than four square miles a year to illegal logging, oil palm plantations, and expansion of settlements.

“Palm oil plantations have converted 90 percent of prime Sumatran elephant habitat to a monoculture desert,” says Paul Hilton, a Hong Kong-based photojournalist who focuses on the palm oil issue. “The future of the critically endangered Sumatran elephant hangs on a thread.”

VIOLATION OF MORATORIUM

Although a majority of buyers of palm oil have pledged to buy only oil produced without further deforestation and harm to the environment, the continued destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem’s fragile areas prompted the national and Aceh governments in April 2016 to agree to a moratorium on new concessions and on land clearing in existing concessions.

According to foresthints.news, which reports on environmental issues, in June 2016 Siti Nurbaya, Indonesia’s minister of the environment and forestry, gave Aceh’s Governor Zaini Abdullah the results of the ministry’s monitoring of the moratorium: PT ABN was still clearing land. So Abdullah sent a circular letter to all plantation companies, including PT ABN, instructing them to stop cutting down forests.

Shortly afterwards the ministry also determined that PT ABN had no valid permit for land-clearing operations in its Leuser concession. A roadblock was put up to prevent PT ABN from accessing the concession, and the ministry told foresthints.news that “the sealing off of concessions represents a legal instrument for protecting the Leuser Ecosystem.”

Yet the Rainforest Action Network’s investigative team—using satellite imagery, aerial drones, and on-the-ground surveillance—found that PT ABN accelerated its clearing from June 2016 through January 2017, bulldozing 800 acres of prime elephant, tiger, and orangutan habitat.

“Month over month we found active clearance by a company that had its road blocked because of its earlier violation,” says Laurel Sutherlin, the organization’s senior communications strategist and co-author of the report. “For them to do it again is a scandal.”

A request for comment from PT ABN was made through its website, but the company didn’t respond.

CONFLICTING SIGNALS

It’s unclear whether or how the Indonesian government or the Aceh government will react to violations like PT ABN’s. Neither the environment ministry nor the office of the Aceh governor has responded to requests for comment.

Recent history raises questions regarding the Aceh government’s commitment to protecting the integrity of the Leuser Ecosystem. For example, in 2013 Aceh issued a “spatial” land use plan that allowed for more development. The plan does not recognize the Leuser’s legal status as a National Strategic Area—status that prohibits activities like cultivation and the building of roads and other infrastructure that would degrade the ecosystem’s provision of “services” such as clean water.

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Perhaps about 200 of Sumatra's no more than 1,000 remaining elephants now roam the Leuser Ecosystem, a biodiversity hot spot.


Indonesia’s Ministry of Home Affairs rejected the plan and asked for revisions, including acknowledgement of the ecosystem’s protected status.

But no revisions were made, spurring an alliance of concerned citizens and NGOs called the People’s Movement to Contest the Aceh Spatial Plan to file a class-action lawsuit in January 2016. The suit argued that the Aceh government’s plan should recognize Leuser Ecosytem’s special status as a National Strategic Area and sought to have the home affairs minister cancel it until it was revised accordingly. The defendants objected to the case, noting that the plan’s exclusion of the Leuser Ecosystem does not result in losses for the plaintiffs.

The Aceh government appears to be acting as if the plan has been approved. According to Mongabay.com, in late 2016 Governor Abdullah supported a proposal by a Turkish energy company to build a massive geothermal plant in the heart of the ecosystem and asked Indonesia’s environment and forestry ministry to rezone almost 30 square miles to accommodate its development.

Will such conflicting signals continue now that Aceh has a new governor, Irwandi Yusuf, following elections on February 15? This is Yusuf’s second term. When he was governor from 2007 to 2012, he established a management authority for the Leuser Ecosystem that hired rangers to patrol and prevent illegal hunting and logging.

But according to Mongabay.com, Yusuf also signed, in 2011, a permit for PT Kallista Alam to convert almost 4,000 acres of peat swamp forest into an oil palm plantation—violating a moratorium on new forest concessions signed three months earlier. (Abdullah later revoked the permit, and following multiple court battles, Kallista Alam was convicted of illegal burning and ordered to pay $26 million in fines.)

“ZERO DEFORESTATION” POLICY

During its investigation, the Rainforest Action Network tracked oil palm fruits harvested at PT ABN’s plantation to a nearby processing mill owned by PT Koperasi Prima Jasa (PT KPJ), which in turn sends the crude oil to two refineries owned by Singapore-based Wilmar International.

Wilmar—the world’s largest palm oil company, controlling more than 45 percent of the global trade—committed in December 2013 to a policy of zero deforestation across all the palm oil it produces, sources, and trades. The policy applies to “all Wilmar operations worldwide, including those of its subsidiaries, any refinery, mill or plantation that we own, manage, or invest in.” Wilmar supplies oil to companies like PepsiCo, Nestlé, Procter and Gamble, and Unilever, which also have no-deforestation commitments.

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This little one gets a nudge as they cross a river in the Leuser Ecosystem.


After learning about PT ABN’s land clearing from the Rainforest Action Network, Wilmar asked PT KPJ for clarification and offered “assistance to support their supplier toward remediation,” says Perpetua George, the company’s general manager for group sustainability. “KPJ then decided to no longer buy from ABN.”

To ensure compliance, George says, “KPJ will have to show us evidence that they stopped buying from ABN, and we will conduct a site visit to make sure that this is indeed the case. But,” she notes, “that won’t necessarily stop ABN’s deforestation because ABN can always turn around and sell to someone else.”

About 20 percent of palm oil refining capacity in the region isn’t subject to a no-deforestation commitment.

While Wilmar’s action is welcome, Sutherlin says, it should have happened not because of his organization’s investigation but rather “as part of due diligence by companies” who made no-deforestation pledges. “These companies need to take their commitments seriously and verify they aren’t clearing wildlife habitat.”

According to George, her employer agrees. She says Wilmar, along with Ferrero and Nestlé and likely others, is adopting a new mapping system called Starling to identify forest clearing more quickly, which will help address violations of corporate policies. Starling, created jointly by the Forest Trust, Airbus Defence and Space, and SarVision, uses high-resolution satellite and radar imagery to track changes in forest cover.

If company commitments and adherence to government moratoriums are easier to monitor, they’ll be harder to circumvent. Good news for the remaining Sumatran elephants and other endangered creatures.