What’s at Stake
At six and a half million acres, Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem is a world unto itself—a rich and verdant expanse of rare, unbroken, tropical lowland rainforests, cloud draped mountains and steamy peat swamps.
It is among the most ancient and life-rich ecosystems ever documented by science, and is the last place on Earth where Sumatran orangutans, elephants, tigers, rhinos and sun bears still roam the same habitat.
Located mostly within the province of Aceh on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, the Leuser Ecosystem is by every measure a world-class hotspot of biodiversity and is widely acknowledged to be among the most important areas of intact rainforest left in all of Southeast Asia.
But the Leuser Ecosystem exists at a tenuous crossroads. Despite being technically protected under Indonesian national law, industrial development for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations and mining continues to threaten the entire ecosystem, as well as the wellbeing of millions of Acehnese people who depend on it for their food, water and livelihoods.
With your support, RAN and our allies have made great progress towards elevating the Leuser Ecosystem as the global conservation priority it deserves to be, but the forests are still falling. Much work remains to secure the lasting corporate and government protections so urgently needed.
Wildlife and Biodiversity
The Leuser Ecosystem is home to the largest extent of intact forest landscapes remaining in Sumatra and it is among the most biologically abundant landscapes ever described.
Scientists and conservationists consider the Leuser Ecosystem to be among the most important forests left in Southeast Asia, particularly because it is the last place of sufficient size and quality to support viable populations of rare species like Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos, elephants, clouded leopards and sun bears.
At least 105 mammal species, 382 bird species, and 95 reptile and amphibian species, including clouded leopards, hornbills and the largest flowers in the world, can be found in the teeming forests of the Leuser Ecosystem. Formerly known as the “Emerald Island,” Sumatra’s once lush forest landscapes are now largely gone, destroyed by decades of industrial encroachment.
The Sumatran orangutan is at extreme risk of becoming the first great ape to go extinct in the wild. The last major stands of habitat for the Sumatran orangutan are found in the Leuser Ecosystem, which supports about 75 percent of the world’s remaining population. In order to save the Sumatran orangutan from extinction, we must protect the integrity of the Leuser Ecosystem. Other critical species face a similar fate. The Sumatran tiger is thought to number just a few hundred individuals left, the Sumatran rhino even fewer still, with the Sumatran elephant similarly imperiled.
The Leuser Ecosystem is truly the last stand for survival for many treasured and iconic wildlife species.
Human Impacts, Human Rights
The Leuser Ecosystem stretches across the province of Aceh and North Sumatra on the island of Sumatra. These provinces are home to a diverse range of rural communities, many of whom have lived in the region for generations and depend on the uniquely biodiverse forest ecosystem for their food and livelihoods.
The majority of Aceh’s people—between 70 and 75 percent—live on the coastal plains of Sumatra, where many communities have established wet rice cultivation.
The livelihoods and food supply for millions of people rely heavily on the natural services, particularly the water supplies, that the Leuser Ecosystem provides. These critical environmental services are highly sensitive to human disturbance of the forests upstream. Detailed economic studies show that, when protected, these forests continually provide hundreds of millions of dollars in net benefits every year compared to the limited, one-time profits of deforestation. The continued destruction of forests gravely threatens the long-term welfare of the Acehnese people. Aceh underwent a bitter 30-year conflict between the Indonesian military and a local separatist movement, ending when the Asian Tsunami hit in 2004 and peace negotiations began.
A balance must now be found between rebuilding the economy and equitable development while protecting human rights and the ecosystem services that local communities rely on for their livelihoods.
The Leuser Ecosystem: A Critical Carbon Sink for the Climate
The Leuser Ecosystem plays an outsize role regulating the global climate by storing massive amounts of carbon in its peatlands and standing forests.
Peatlands are wet, carbon-rich areas that have formed through thousands of years of undecomposed leaf litter and organic material accumulation.
When these areas are drained and the peat is exposed to air, it begins to oxidize and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, a peat degradation process that carries on, year after year, for decades. The dried out peat is also highly flammable, and recurring, human ignited fires send up huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, which in bad fire years has been estimated to be as much as the fossil fuel emissions of all of Western Europe. Indonesia is ranked the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions in the world after China and the United States, with 50 percent estimated to be coming from peat emissions and an additional 30 percent from deforestation.
There has been enormous progress made on behalf of the Leuser Ecosystem, both in raising international understanding of the importance of preserving its forests and in pressuring the major corporate players involved to accept responsibility and begin to take action. But the fact remains: forests are still falling and the Leuser Ecosystem is still shrinking. Corporate policies and government regulations are only as good as their follow through—rigorous enforcement is key to stopping the chainsaws and bulldozers from continuing their relentless push into this region’s remaining rainforests.
This is why RAN has created Leuser Watch—a watchdog site for alerts about ongoing destruction taking place within the Leuser Ecosystem as well as a clearinghouse for news on select Leuser-related conservation developments.
In November 2014, RAN exposed the links between the ‘Big Three Buyers’ of palm oil from the Leuser Ecosystem region—Wilmar International, Musim Mas Group and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd—and the destruction on the ground in Indonesia.
Since then, all of the Big Three Buyers have publicly confirmed that they source from palm oil companies with operations in or near the Leuser Ecosystem and have begun initiatives to bring these palm oil companies into compliance with their responsible palm oil policies.
These actions are all steps in the right direction. However, despite these efforts, Conflict Palm Oil continues to expand into the heart of the rainforests and peatlands of the Leuser Ecosystem. Wilmar, Musim Mas and Golden Agri-Resources, and their customers in the Snack Food 20 group of brands, remain at high risk of sourcing Conflict Palm Oil produced inside the Leuser Ecosystem. It is clear that more action is needed throughout the entire supply chain to effect real change on the ground inside the Leuser Ecosystem.
Time is running out, especially in the lowland rainforests and the carbon-rich peatlands which are at the frontlines of Conflict Palm Oil expansion. We need these buyers to take urgent action to intervene and secure the permanent protection of the priceless Leuser Ecosystem. Given the scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis, we simply cannot afford to lose the Leuser Ecosystem.