Being a conservationist means sleeping with one eye open.
That’s because development pressures never cease—even for the planet’s most critical ecosystems.
For example, ALERT recently reported good news for the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra, Indonesia—a renowned World Heritage Area and the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos still survive together.
Irwandi Yusuf, the governor-elect for Aceh Province in Sumatra, said he would personally halt a major geothermal plant proposed by a Turkish corporation that would be constructed right in the heart of the Leuser wilderness.
But wait—that battle isn’t won yet. Behind the scenes, the Turkish firm is now pressing the Indonesian government to fast-track the project, before Irwandi becomes governor.
Many Indonesians are aghast. Last week a consortium of nongovernmental groups implored the UNESCO World Heritage Commission to intervene urgently, to stop the threat.
Roads to Ruin
The Turkish geothermal plant isn’t the only danger to Leuser—several big hydropower projects are being proposed and other developments too.
These projects could shatter the Leuser wilderness, slicing up large expanses of the forest with powerlines and roads.
The roads would open a Pandora’s box of perils—bringing poachers armed with snares and rifles to hunt rare wildlife.
The roads would also bring illegal miners, loggers, and encroachers that bulldoze, burn, and fragment the forest.
And as the forest is stripped away, streams are polluted and destructive flooding increases downstream for villages and farmers.
Indonesia’s Minister for Environment and Forestry, Dr Siti Nurbaya, has previously fought for the Leuser Ecosystem, and visited Aceh last year to publicly declare a moratorium on new oil palm and mining leases in Leuser.
Minister Siti has also been active in opposing actions that defy environmental laws laid down by Indonesian President Joko Widodo—laws to combat illegal wildfires, mining, and other threats while reducing the noxious haze that has chronically blanketed much of Southeast Asia.
But now it’s decision time. On the one hand, Indonesia needs social and economic development—no one disputes that. But on the other hand, the Leuser Ecosystem is unique—arguably Indonesia’s most important protected area, a key tourist attraction and an international icon.
Will Minister Siti and President Widodo battle again for Leuser?
It won’t be easy. Powerful forces are in play—big corporations driving to exploit the forest immediately and irrevocably.
On the back of such decisions, global reputations can be forged and national prestige won or lost.
Whatever happens, lots of Indonesians and many other people around the world will be keenly watching—with one eye open even while we sleep.