Palm Oil Development Fueling Demise of Biodiversity 'Crown Jewel': Report

Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem, one of the most “biodiverse ecosystems ever documented by science,” is facing imminent threat from industrial development, according to a new report published Wednesday by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

The Leuser Ecosystem, located on the island of Sumatra, covers over 6.5 million acres and is described as being “like nowhere else on Earth.” The region boasts some of the highest levels of plant and animal diversity worldwide, with at least 105 mammal species, 382 bird species, and 95 reptile and amphibian species.

Despite being protected under Indonesian law, the ecosystem is “under siege” from industrial development, spurred by global palm oil demand, coupled with a pending government green-light to further development, according to the new report, The Last Place on Earth – Exposing the Threats to the Leuser Ecosystem: A Global Biodiversity Hotspot Deserving Protection (pdf).

“The Leuser Ecosystem is one of the world’s most richly biodiverse landscapes, and millions of people depend on it for their food, water and livelihoods. But the fate of this crown jewel of Indonesia’s natural legacy—home to tigers, orangutans, rhinos, elephants and sun bears—depends on urgent choices made right now,” said Gemma Tillack, RAN agribusiness campaign director, in a press statement.

Using case studies, supply chain research and on the ground investigations, RAN documents the growing number of companies operating legally and illegally within the protected Leuser Ecosystem, including over thirty palm oil companies. When combined with “unchecked mining, logging and poaching in the region, as well as pulp plantation expansion,” report authors write, “this vital ecosystem is facing a perfect storm of destruction.”

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RAN’s investigation found that a refinery jointly owned by Musim Mas Group, one of the world’s largest buyers and traders of palm oil, and the Indonesian government’s state-owned palm oil plantation company, PT. Perkebunan Nusantara (PTPN) III, has been connected to a mill that processes palm oil sourced from within the Leuser Ecosystem.

Further, the report states that consumer goods manufacturing companies that purchase palm oil from Musim Mas are also at risk of contributing to Leuser’s destruction, particularly those companies which have thus far neglected to adopt any responsible palm oil procurement policies. These include snack food giants PepsiCo, Kraft Foods Group, The H.J. Heinz Company, The Campbell Soup Company, and Hillshire Brands, among others.

The report comes as newly elected Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, and his cabinet are considering a new spatial plan that would remove protections from large regions of forest within the Leuser Ecosystem and open up critical landscapes to large-scale industrial development, according to RAN. 

The decision will be the “first major test of the strength of the new president’s conviction to do what’s best for the people of Indonesia,” said Tillack. She added that the proposed plan would be “disastrous for the millions of Acehnese people who depend on the Leuser Ecosystem and it would push the Sumatran orangutan, Sumatran rhino and Sumatran tiger even closer to the brink of extinction.”

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