Illegal Logging and Road Construction for Palm Oil Pushing Endangered Species to Extinction in the Leuser Ecosystem

Forest ecologists and frontline forest communities understand that the single biggest threat to healthy forest ecosystems is road construction. In frontier forest regions like Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, roads are the first cut into a pristine landscape that begins a predictable cascade of damage to the region’s ecological integrity and ultimately to the human communities downstream. Roads are a one-way direction of human development from which forests almost certainly never recover. That’s why recent evidence of fresh road building in the northeast lowland rainforests of the Leuser Ecosystem is so alarming.

Newly collected evidence by Rainforest Action Network field teams exposes that rampant logging, land clearance and road construction for oil palm plantations is leaving endangered Sumatran orangutans fighting for life in isolated forest patches in a region known as the ‘orangutan capital of the world.’ Over the past six months RAN has gathered satellite and field data documenting the destructive activities in lowland rainforest areas designated by the Indonesian government to two controversial palm oil companies–– PT. Nia Yulided (NY) and PT. Putra Kurnia (PK)––for palm oil development in the district of Aceh Timur. Time is running out for this rare and ecologically critical lowland rainforest habitat.

Despite repeated exposés chronicling the controversial practices of both palm oil companies, to date, among major palm oil buyers, only Unilever has announced that both companies are on its suspended supplier list. Nestlé, Mars and Mondelēz have failed to publicly respond or issue lists of their suspended suppliers in the Leuser Ecosystem. None of the brands have engaged with PT. Nia Yulided or PT. Putra Kurnia to communicate directly the need to stop deforestation, new roads and logging. The failure of Unilever, Nestlé, Mars and Mondelēz to engage in dialogue with these rogue producers has delayed the end of deforestation for palm oil production in the Leuser Ecosystem and continues to place vast areas of lowland rainforests at risk. 

Drone footage of forest clearing by PT. Nia Yulided. October 2020. 

In October, RAN’s field investigation team documented lowland rainforests being illegally logged and lands cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. Drone footage above and images below show the scale of destruction that continues unabated despite these forests being critical habitat areas for Sumatran orangutans, elephants and tigers and vital water catchment areas for local communities. Since the beginning of 2020, PT. Nia Yulided (PT. NY) has reduced the standing forests from 1,624 to 1,411 hectares, or a total 213 hectares of forest loss just in this small area. In the month of August 2020 alone, 85 hectares of forests were destroyed.

Aerial image of forest destruction by PT. Nia Yulided. October 2020

In a poignant example of the tragic stakes involved in the destruction of this important habitat, RAN field investigators also found and photographed a desperate lone Sumatran orangutan gripping on for its life in a now-isolated patch of forest remaining amongst the recently cleared lands. Without intervention this critically endangered animal will certainly die of starvation, a stark illustration that opening forest areas for roads accelerates habitat loss and the degradation of the biodiverse Leuser Ecosystem forest complex, which is home to many other endangered species as well.

A desperate lone Sumatran orangutan gripping on for its life in a now-isolated patch of forest remaining amongst the recently cleared lands by PT. Nia Yulided.
Satellite image showing the flight path of the drone in blue and the extent of more clearing within PT Nia Yulided’s concession that was allocated to the company despite the presence of critically important lowland rainforests.
Satellite image showing forest clearing by PT. NY. October 2020
Satellite image showing forest clearing by PT. NY. July 2020

Satellite images show that new roads have been pushed into lowland rainforests and significant logging and deforestation has continued over the past four months. Field investigators have found piles of logs along the new road and new oil palm trees being planted in the recently cleared lands. The forest loss maps, satellite images and images collected in field trips in April show that destructive activities have continued unabated since April 2020.

Forest loss April 2020
Forest loss May 2020
New palm oil plantings in PT. Nia Yulided. Coordinate 04º26’18.89″N 97º49’56.39″E.
June 2020


Burnt forests and road in PT. Nia Yulided. June 2020


Logs found along the road in PT. Nia Yulided. Coordinate 04º27’36.56″N 97º46’55.34″E, June 2020


Log loaded up on motorcycle inside PT Nia Yulided concession. June 2020


Forest loss July. 2020


Forest loss August. 2020


Forest loss September. 2020

This devastation has occurred on the frontlines of deforestation in one of Indonesia’s most valuable intact forest regions at a time when policies and land use plans governing the landscape need to be strengthened to address the ongoing loss of rainforests and endangered species habitat across Indonesia. Although the Leuser Ecosystem was afforded legal protection under Indonesian national law as a National Strategic Area for its Environmental Protection Function, (under Law No. 26/2007 juncto Law No. 26/2008) destructive industries continue to expand into vital areas lowland rainforests inside the Leuser Ecosystem, threatening its ecological integrity. 

A permit review has been announced by the government of Indonesia, but not yet implemented in full across the Leuser Ecosystem including the district of Aceh Timur–– the region where the clearing was found which also has the highest rates of deforestation and largest areas of threatened lowland rainforests inside the Leuser Ecosystem. It is clear that PT. Nia Yulided is breaching the Indonesian government’s instructions to halt forest clearance until the completion of the permit review. PT. Nia Yulided is not the only palm oil company failing to adhere to the President of Indonesia and Minister of Environment and Forestry instructions to cease land clearing. It’s neighbor PT. Putra Kurnia is also destroying lowland rainforests inside its concession area.

Putra Kurnia

In June 2020, RAN’s field investigators also found significant, fresh land clearing and new roads being pushed into lowland rainforests by PT Putra Kurnia. The company has already planted cleared lands with new palm oil plantations. The total concession area controlled by PT. Putra Kurnia is 5107ha, it has reduced the standing forests from 437 hectares to 374 hectares since the beginning of the year. Satellite imagery also shows that forest clearance throughout April and May 2020.

Illegally logged timber found along the road in PT. Putra Kurnia. June 2020. Coordinate 04º27’37.46″N 97º47’50.96″E.


Road building in PT. Putra Kurnia for planting palm oil. June 2020. Coordinate 04º27’56.56″N 97º48’2.23″E


Forest loss in PT. Putra Kurnia concession. April 2020


Forest loss in PT. Putra Kurnia concession. May 2020

Given the evidence of rampant deforestation by both PT. Nia Yulided and PT. Putra Kurnia, it is urgent that global brands enforce their no deforestation policies, engage in dialogue with these rogue producers and others delaying the end of deforestation for palm oil, and take decisive and collective action to protect thousands of hectares of lowland rainforests facing imminent deforestation in Aceh Timur and across the Leuser Ecosystem. The completion of the review of the palm oil permits is also urgently needed across the  Leuser Ecosystem to ensure that critically important rainforests are protected from conversion to palm oil plantations.