May 27, 2019
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Activists use satellites to detect illegal oil palm plantations in Indonesia

By Ricardo Pérez-Solero

Banda Aceh, Indonesia, May 16 (efe-epa).- The battle against illegal oil palm plantations on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is being fought hundreds of kilometers above ground through orbiting satellites that manage to penetrate the veil of secrecy of those involved in the rapid deforestation ravaging the island's bustling ecosystems.

The European Union and countless non-profits consider the cultivation of oil palms the prime cause of deforestation in the world's two main palm oil-producing countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. There is a growing call by activists for greater transparency amid the reluctance of authorities and corporations to make information about these plantations public.

One of the endangered areas is Sumatra's Leuser Ecosystem, a huge rainforest region spanning over 2.6 million hectares populated by protected species including elephants, rhinos and tigers.

Projects such as NASA's Landsat 8 and the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 programs, along with the satellites from the United States-based company Planet Labs or the University of Maryland's Global Forest Watch initiative, allow environmental organizations to survey nearly 90 percent of this ecosystem from Low Earth Orbit.

Agung Dwinurcahya, an activist working for the anti-deforestation group Haka, said the organization would take legal measures when it detected a forest area loss of more than five hectares or if it found a protected species was being threatened.

"The government has its own deforestation data, but the latest hasn't been published yet. We only have it for 2017," Agung told EFE while showing off the advanced geographic information tools used by the group inside a café in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, located in the west of Sumatra.

The loss of forest has caused an increase in natural disasters such as floods, avalanches and droughts, the activist said.

The Gunung Leuser National Park, which covers almost 8,000 square kilometers (3,089 square miles), is a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the most biodiverse areas on the Indonesian archipelago.

In 2018, the province of Aceh lost more than 15,000 hectares of forest. This is a smaller than the 21,000 hectares that were destroyed in 2015, which, according to Anung, indicates that the security forces were starting to take environmental crimes more seriously.

Although the destruction of primary rainforests is at its lowest level since 2003 in Indonesia, it still placed third among countries that lost the greatest amount of rainforest (340,000 hectares) in 2018, according to the World Resources Institute.

Local police and nearly 1,800 rangers in Aceh are hampered by a scarcity of resources, while the government has systematically made access to information about agricultural concessions more difficult, both at the local and national level.

Agung said that a coalition of activists had filed a complaint against the country's agriculture ministry and the national land agency back in March for violating the 2008 Law on Public Information Transparency.

Meanwhile, the coordinating minister for economic affairs, Darmin Nasution, defended the need to keep information about oil palm plantation concessions confidential in order to uphold the national economic interest.

In Aceh, Haka forwards the evidence collected by the satellites to the organization Forum Konservasi Leuser, which documents the situation on the ground – both in-person and through drones – and takes the most significant cases to court.

Out of a total of 5,000 deforestation cases handled last year, the FKL took 80 of them to court, of which 55 percent ended in a warning to the accused and only 18 percent resulted in jail sentences and fines.

Many of those who are caught tend to return the land to the State voluntarily, while others prefer to sue, which in some instances can lead to the court-mandated felling of the oil palm trees.

Tezar Fahlevi, an FKL activist, said that roads actually represented the biggest threat to the ecosystem because they were the gateway to illegal activities in mining, plantations or felling, and were not properly supervised by the government.

"If the government could increase the number of officers tasked with guarding and patrolling these areas, I'm positive the number of illegal activities would decline," he said.

Tezar told EFE that he was working on a case concerning an 80-hectare oil palm plantation located in a natural reserve that allegedly belongs to a member of Aceh's legislative chamber.

rps/dl/ses

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