Under threat:: A view of forest and a river at Mount Leuser National Park on the border of North Sumatra and Aceh provinces. The park is a natural treasure but, at the same time, a threat to human life.Natural resources can be a blessing and, at the same time, a curse.
Likewise, Mount Leuser National Park (TNGL), which in 2004 was established by UNESCO as a tropical rainforest heritage site on Sumatra, located on the Aceh – North Sumatra border, is a treasure of biodiversity but is also a threat to human life and a disaster for protected wildlife.
To the community living around the Leuser ecosystem zone (KEL), the local forest is a source of livelihood. But now the Leuser people are concerned after the Wildlife Conservation Society recorded that during 2000-2009, the TNGL lost 18,839 hectares of its forest area annually, a significant increase from the 1990-2000 period, which saw an annual loss of only 1,789 hectares.
This increase in forest destruction has forced Hasan Basri, 50, along with 8,000 residents from Halaban village, Besitang district in Langkat regency, North Sumatra, who live within a radius of 7 km of the TNGL zone, to work hard to obtain clean water for their daily needs.
“Now in the dry season we’ve got to skimp on food in order to buy clean water. But not everyone here can afford to buy water just to take a bath,” said Hasan, who is also a community figure in the village.
To acquire clean water, Halaban villagers have to spend Rp15,000 (US$1.59) per 200 liters for two days’ cooking and consumption in a family of four. If rivers dry up, they need another 200 liters for washing and taking a bath, while their average monthly income is only between Rp1.5 million and Rp 2 million. “Water is very expensive here, so we have to save it,” he added.
Halaban, which is situated 114 km from Medan, the North Sumatran capital, was famous before the 1980s for its orange plantations and water was not considered a luxury, according to Hasan. The spring on Dinding Hill, which is about 3 km from the village, offered bountiful supplies of fresh water. In the 1980s, however, the spring water started to deplete and within five years the source began to dry up due to the expansion of oil palm estates.
“Once we drilled a well to the depth of 100 meters with no more clean underground water gushing out,” noted Hasan, who teaches in a junior high school in Langkat. Some villagers who can’t afford to buy clean water use muddy water in brooks for washing clothes and make the small streams their latrines. “We also utilize rainwater collected in 200-liter water tanks. Every home here has a long hose connecting the roof with a water tank,” he said.
In spite of the local community’s opposition, oil palm estates have continued to expand to date. Starting from the opening of Indonesia to foreign investment in 1967, the expansion peaked in the 1990s. The large-scale forest conversion has reduced underground water to its lowest level, thus considerably limiting the river’s water supply. “We realize that life has become uncomfortable, but we can do nothing to stop the estates,” he added.
The TNGL, with a total area of 1,094,692 hectares, gained national-park status in 1980 and was named after Mount Leuser, which straddles the border area to a height of 3,404 meters above sea level. This park represents the coastal forest ecosystem, with its low-lying to mountain-level tropical rain forest. Nearly the entire zone is densely covered with dipterocarp trees as well as several rivers and waterfalls.
In 1981, UNESCO also declared the TNGL a biosphere reserve and in 1984, an ASEAN heritage park. The 2.6-million-hectare KEL is considered the last sanctuary for Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran elephants, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran rhinos, which are highly endangered.
The TNGL stores least 8,500 species of vegetation. Its coastal and marshy land has casuarinas, forest nutmeg, camphor-yielding trees, nibong palm, rattan, mangroves and pandanus. Along its river banks are matoa trees, while its low-lying forest is dominated by meranti, keruing, camphor and resin trees, forest durian and mango. The park also boasts giant flowers, Amorphopalus titanium, which are special to the region.
The high biodiversity of the KEL zone, however, is currently being threatened by human activity; notably, the forest conversion into oil palm plantations. Greenpeace Indonesia has revealed that since 1990, around 28 million hectares of forestland, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan, have been converted into oil palm estates. The Directorate General of Plantations stated in 2010 that more than 5 million hectares of Indonesia’s total 8.04 million hectares of oil palm estates were located in Sumatra. This area is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, proportional to the crude palm oil (CPO) demand from the European Union, Asia and the Middle East.
Currently, Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer in the world. In 2011, the export value of oil palm products and derivatives reached US$11.61 billion, rising by 17.75 percent or US$2.5 billion above the 2010 level. This export value is predicted to keep growing in the coming years in keeping with the government program to raise oil palm production by 27 million tons until 2015.
Hanging on:: An orangutan looks down from the trees in the Mount Leuser National Park.Apart from exports, the domestic demand for palm oil as biodiesel material in 2012 is estimated to be 500,000 – 600,000 kiloliters, higher than the volume realized in 2011, totaling 350,000 kiloliters. The increase is due to the use of CPO in agriculture in Java of 7.5 percent biodiesel mixed with diesel oil. This mixture is also used in Bali, Madura and Sumatra.
North Sumatra University economic observer, John Tafbu Ritonga, said the palm oil industry would continue to be a reliable sector. Besides boosting production, the government should also see to it that the increased foreign and domestic CPO demand could produce a multiplier effect on the economy of communities around oil palm estates, particularly in North Sumatra.
“Today, what has been yielded by oil palm estates does not yet promote the welfare of their neighboring communities. Instead, the benefits are only enjoyed by the central government through the CPO export tax,” he pointed out. The high palm oil export value, according to him, was not proportional to the poverty still prevalent among people living around oil palm estates in Langkat, adjacent to the KEL.
“Economically, the rising CPO export value increases state foreign exchange revenue but, on the other hand, thousands of people near oil palm estates still have to spend a quarter of their income on the purchase of clean water,” John added.