Govt doing commendable job in protecting Leuser Ecosystem, according to acclaimed biologist

(foresthints.news) - “Internationally, there is a great deal of interest in the Leuser Ecosystem, and other areas of Indonesia of course, as it is one of the most environmentally and biologically important areas anywhere on the planet.”

These were the unequivocal words of internationally-renowned biologist Professor William F. Laurance when interviewed recently by foresthints.news (Nov 19).

The professor expounded on why this area is so significant: “The Leuser Ecosystem, in particular, has attracted great interest because it’s the last place on earth where tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants still live, and it is of course one of the last areas of lowland forest, intact lowland forest, in Sumatra. It’s really a biological and environmental jewel.”

The James Cook University academic was especially eager to laud the efforts of the current Indonesian government with respect to ongoing forest conservation efforts and measures.

“We’ve been very pleased with the policy recently, with President Jokowi, in terms of moratoria on issues like burning and oil palm. We have also been very pleased with the increasing engagement of the Aceh provincial government, and their positive views in terms of trying to balance developmental and environmental concerns in the Leuser Ecosystem and in that region (as a whole).”

He reserved special praise for Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, Dr Siti Nurbaya.

“And then we’ve also been especially pleased with Ibu Siti, the Environment Minister, and we see her as being very visionary, in particular in her recent decision to recommend including the Leuser Ecosystem in the Aceh spatial plan. This is a very far reaching recommendation.”

He went on to further describe his admiration for the role played by both the central and Aceh government in combating environmental destruction in the area.

“We have a great deal of respect for the work that the people in the Aceh government and President Jokowi are involved in right now. We see this is from an international perspective. I’m from the scientific community and work primarily in tropical regions – as scientists hope to do.”

Professor Laurance took pains to explain his role in sustainable development efforts.

“Indonesia is a developing country. It has very serious needs for economic and social development, but our mission is to learn, to talk, to listen, and to try to help the governments and organizations by suggesting strategies that can, on the one hand, maximize the social and economic benefits for communities, for people, and at the same time try to minimize environmental damage and costs, and the impact on things like tourism, on the ecosystem, on carbon storage, and on greenhouse gas emissions.”

He stressed the need for an equilibrium between environmental and social concerns in dealing with the area.

“So that it (the Leuser Ecosystem) can be of maximum benefit, while still balancing the needs of people and the needs of nature, in a way that is more sustainable and better in the long term for people as well as for the nature.”

Professor Laurance, while complimentary of current government efforts, did acknowledge that some reservations exist with regard to environmental policy in the Leuser Ecosystem.

“Right now, with the current government of President Jokowi, yes we’re feeling pretty positive about the kind of policies they’ve been announcing and with their good priorities. There are some issues that still concern us, some proposals. And we are going right now to Leuser, to Banda Aceh, to learn and talk more about some of these specific issues.”

Nevertheless, the acclaimed researcher expressed his overall satisfaction with the direction of Indonesia’s actions in the region, singling out for praise once again the nation’s commander-in-chief and respected environment minister.

“Generally speaking, you know there have been some very positive signs, and nothing is ever perfect. Nobody ever achieves everything you hope for fully. But right now, I would say that many people in the international community have been looking at what President Jokowi has been doing in terms of combating fires, in terms of moratoria on oil palm and some other issues. And the Environment Minister, Ibu Siti, who has been doing, you know, I think a very fine job.”

The professor did seek to temper his positive outlook with some pragmatic warnings.

“So we see optimism but also some (cause for) caution because there are still so many proposals for major projects, geothermal projects, hydrothermal projects and others things. And it’s not even just these projects. Sometimes the roads and the other things that are going in can open up larger areas for a much bigger impact. What we are trying to see, where our interest is, is where one can have development but in a sustainable way, without having a lot of environmental damage that’s really not good for anybody.”

He expanded further on several of his concerns, some in the political sphere and others in the developmental sphere.

“Well, in the medium term I think one big concern, of course, is a future election and if there is a major change of government in Aceh. There’s a concern that a future administration might be much less sympathetic to sustainable development, and the gap will be a major concern.”

“There are plans for some projects right now that would be located there, for instance the Turkish Geothermal plan, and some other development plans which are of concern to us,” he added.

The professor offered some further words of warning about the risks of Indonesia opening up to outside investment.

“So Indonesia, generally, in the long term, is interested in engaging for more investment funding for infrastructure and development. I think one concern I would have is that one needs to be careful because there can be strings attached, there can be a lot of additional things happening very rapidly.”

He continued, “Once it (Indonesia) starts accepting large amounts of foreign money, (it needs to make sure) it stays in control, and the government stays in control. (It needs to make sure) the issues around the government do not involve bad decisions which are not made for the benefit of the people, or the environment, or the national heritage of Indonesia, because there is a lot of pressure coming from foreign interests like investors and corporations that want to make money very quickly.”

Professor Laurance wound down the interview with foresthints.news on a more personal note, describing where his travels in Indonesia have taken him and are about to take him.

“The Leuser Ecosystem is an area that I’ve been reading about and hearing about. I have visited Sumatra several times and I’ve been in central Sumatra. I’ve been in Medan and I’ve been in Banda Aceh, but I have not yet had a chance to go into the Leuser Ecosystem. But on this trip, I’m going in. I’m going to spend few days there and I’m very much looking forward to it. I’ve seen so many photos, so much film, and now I’m going in. I’m going to walk, and I want to see, you know, the forest.”

The professor’s enthusiasm for his profession and his impending visit to the distinctive Leuser Ecosystem were obvious.

“As a biologist, I’m really looking forward to seeing this area. I’ve been to many impressive areas of the world and everyone tells me that the Leuser Ecosystem is up there with the Amazon, with Serengeti (National Park), Madagascar, with many of the biological wonders of the world. It’s an area that I think Indonesia is very, very proud of. It’s a very unique place.”

In wrapping up the interview, Professor Laurance encapsulated in words the unparalleled significance and majesty of the Leuser Ecosystem.

“It is the last place on the planet where the giant fauna still survives together in the rainforest - orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers. Most places just don't have that - you do not even get any of those species, but here you have all four together. So, it is a truly unique place, a very special place worth protecting as much as possible.”