Update: The Central Jakarta District Court dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that a higher court should hear challenges to provincial zoning laws instead. The NGOs behind the lawsuit say they plan to appeal.
An Indonesian court will decide on Tuesday whether the country's most intact tropical wilderness will stay that way. It's a ruling that experts say could open the door to the rampant destruction of a vital ecosystem.
The Central Jakarta District Court is scheduled to issue a ruling on a class action lawsuit challenging provincial zoning laws in Sumatra's Aceh province that cast a dark shadow over the future of the Leuser Ecosystem. The lawsuit, filed by The Aceh Citizens Movement (GeRAM), argues that zoning laws passed by the provincial government contradict a national law that designates Leuser as a conservation zone.
The ecosystem, an area roughly five times the size of Bali, is one of the the most-biodiverse places on earth. It has, so far, been spared the worst of Indonesia's deforestation, but experts say the provincial government's 2013 spatial plan threatens to open up nearly half of the area to development.
"It's hard to adequately express the importance of the Leuser Ecosystem, both to the millions of Acehnese people who depend on it for their livelihoods and clean water, but also for the entire world, as it regulates our climate and provides a home to the last wild populations of Sumatran elephants, orangutans, tigers and rhinos still coexisting in the wild," said Chelsea Matthews, a forest campaigner for Rainforest Action Network (RAN) in a statement.
In addition to providing sanctuary for critically endangered tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans, the ecosystem—which covers 2.6 million hectares in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra—houses over 100 mammals, 380 birds and some 95 reptiles and amphibians, several of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
According to Farwiza Farhan, the executive director of the Forest Nature and Environment of Aceh NGO and a plaintiff in the case, the verdict will shape whether the priceless ecosystem is set on a path to preservation or to ruin, "with millions of lives hanging in the balance."
The ruling was scheduled for November 7th, but justices delayed, saying they needed more time to consider the case. At its heart, the lawsuit is about the extent to which local governments can brazenly flout federal regulations, and provides a test of Jakarta's oft-stated promise to enforce environmental laws.
But on the ground, the case is about something far less complex. It's about roads. Roads are often seen as the precursor to the kinds of environmental destruction seen at Leuser. They allow access to previously remote areas, and increase the likelihood of further encroachment.
In 2008, the central government designated Leuser a "national strategic area for conservation." It was a designation that, on paper at least, outlawed any activities that undermined such a function, explained Farwiza.
But the designation didn't stop the construction of new roads. As roads snaked deeper into the Leuser's vast forests, environmental activists noticed an increase in instances of illegal logging and clearing for oil palm plantations. According to Global Forest Watch, 102,000 hectares were lost between 2006-2014. But that's only a fraction of what's been lost since the 1970s, said Rudi Putra, the manager of the Leuser Conservation Forum. "In total, the activity has claimed 400,000 hectares of the 2.2 million hectares in Aceh since the 1970s," he said. That's nearly a quarter of the ecosystem gone.
"From January to June of this year, we recorded more than 2,000 cases of illegal activity, including illegal logging, encroachment, land clearing and poaching," Rudi said.
A recent Rainforest Action Network report notes an uptick in deforestation, focusing on the contributions of rogue palm companies that continue to chop down lowland forests and drain peatlands.
"While in July 2016, 38 hectares of forest were lost in Leuser concessions, this increased to 58 hectares in August 2016," the report read. "September 2016 satellite analysis showed more than a threefold increase over the previous month, with a loss of 199 hectares of forest. The rapid increase in the rate of deforestation each month is of particular concern."
Now, the provincial government in Aceh is trying to implement a set of 2013 zoning laws—known collectively as a "spatial plan"—that would effectively legalize the existing roads, plantations and quarries and clear the way for further development.
"In the spatial plan there's around 1.2 million hectares that would be potential [candidates] for development [if the spatial plan goes through]," Rudi said.
The figure is high, he added, because without strict conservation protections, practically any bit of land could be rezoned for exploitation. Much has already been earmarked for oil palm plantations, Rudi explained. The new spatial plan would subject Leuser to the same kind of development that has decimated other tropical forests in Indonesia.
On the island of Sumatra, where logging and a plantation boom have slashed forest cover by over 40 percent in the last two decades, Leuser stands out as a kind of rogue Eden.
"Leuser is the largest largely unfragmented forest left [in Sumatra]," Rudi said. "It is basically the last hope for many species."
That the ecosystem has been spared the worst of the Sumatra-wide devastation is due to legal precedents established in 1934, when indigenous leaders in Aceh, fearful of Dutch designs to exploit forests and dig quarries, came together to sign a protection pact.
"We can say this made Leuser area the first conservation [zone] to be initiated by local leaders in Indonesia," Rudi said. "And an important thing to note is that at the time, local leaders said people could not do extractive activities inside of the area, so this means that even then, people were very close to the forest and wanted to protect it."
The ecosystem has become something of a cause celebre in recent years—attracting the attention of celebrity conservationists like Leonardo DiCaprio, who was accused of waging a "black campaign" against palm oil by some Indonesian officials after he visited Gunung Leuser National Park last April. The park, and the wider ecosystem, was featured in DiCaprio's Nation Geographic Channel documentary Before the Flood.
This class action lawsuit stands as the environmental groups' best shot at ensuring the future preservation of the Leuser Ecosystem. With testimony from plaintiffs scattered across all corners of the ecosystem, the case seeks to prove that the crippling floods and landslides that have followed, as well as an overall degradation of the water-table, are a direct result of this loss of forest. According to Rudi, further degradation could be cataclysmic.
"Leuser supplies water for crucial areas in North Aceh and Each Aceh, which are some of the most important rice farming areas," he said. "Aceh could lose this rice production without good water production from Leuser."
In the Aceh district of Tamiang, he said, "100 percent of the population depends on water sourced from Leuser."
So far, Aceh's resolve to see the plan through has withstood years of public opposition and even an order from the national government to revise the plan. Yet despite the combative attitudes of officials in Aceh, heartening signs have been coming in from Jakarta.
In April of this year, for example, environment and forestry minister Siti Nurabaya announced a moratorium on oil palm plantations and mining inside Leuser; and recently, she suggested that the national government would retain authority over zoning in Leuser, notwithstanding the case's outcome.
Whether such overtures will be enough to save Leuser absent a favorable court ruling, however, remains to be seen.
"We hope that the verdict on our citizen lawsuit case will align with the Minister's efforts and result in a revision of the spatial plan that upholds the national legal protection of the Leuser Ecosystem," Farwiza said. "But what is really needed is a spatial plan for Leuser itself that has legal certainty over all types of activities…. and for the Aceh and central governments to work together to save Leuser."
Cory Rogers is an American journalist living in Jakarta, Indonesia. Follow him at @cm_rogers.