Commercial territory ... a new government plan will allow for companies to exploit Indonesian forests, threatening orang-utans, tigers, Sumatran rhinos and other endangered species.

Commercial territory ... a new government plan will allow for companies to exploit Indonesian forests, threatening orang-utans, tigers, Sumatran rhinos and other endangered species. Photo: Getty Images

SOME of the richest and most biodiverse forests in Indonesia will soon be opened up for commercial exploitation under a plan drafted by the new government of Aceh.

The chairman of the Aceh parliament's spatial planning committee, Mr Anwar (who goes by only one name) has confirmed the plan would reduce the total forest cover from about 68 per cent of the province's land mass to 45 per cent.

Most of the newly threatened areas are lowland forests, home to orang-utans, tigers, Sumatran rhinos and other endangered species. Conservationists say the plan drastically increases the danger of their extinction.

Much of the forest has been designated ''production forest'' since the 1990s, but these areas were saved from logging and agriculture initially because they provided a hiding place for Aceh's armed Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) insurgents, and lately by a moratorium imposed by former governor Irwandi Yusuf.

However, local newspaper The Globe Journal has reported the new draft spatial plan prepared under the recently elected governor, Zaini Abdullah, would open these areas for production.

The plan must still be approved by Jakarta, and conservationist Mike Griffiths hopes that will provide an opportunity to have it rejected.

The head of forest landscape in Aceh's Department of Forestry, Saminuddin B. Tou, told Fairfax Media that, in his view, ''it is time for logging concessions to be reactivated''. Asked if Mr Zaini was more pro-development than his predecessor, Mr Saminuddin said: ''I think he's proportional, whereas the previous governor, Irwandi, opened more areas for forests.''

An academic adviser to the government, Dr Irfan, has also confirmed that under the new plan ''there are more areas given for the people''.

The spatial plan puts two huge forest conservation areas under threat. One, the Leuser ecosystem, is a 2.6 million-hectare tropical forest that houses 54 per cent of Asia's terrestrial fauna including tigers, orang-utans, rhinos, elephants, and clouded leopard.

Since Mr Zaini's election, the Leuser ecosystem's independent management authority has been brought under the authority of the province's traditionally pro-development Department of Forestry. Its staff are uncertain about their future.

Mr Griffiths, a former co-ordinator with the Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority, said ''in Indonesia, most of the good forest is gone except Aceh and Papua''. Now, in Aceh, ''they are planning, sooner or later, to knock down a quarter of their forests, most of them in the lowland areas''.

''If this happens, we'll see the extinction of all the charismatic species in 10 to 20 years. The rhinos will be heading towards extinction in six months, the elephants will last perhaps 15 years, the tigers maybe 20. The orang-utans will go quite quickly because they live in the lowlands,'' he said. ''It's very sad.''

Indonesia also has one of the highest carbon emissions profiles in the world because of deforestation.

The moratorium on new forest exploitation in Aceh over the past few years, which outlawed commercial use of forests, slowed this down, but increasing agriculture such as palm oil plantations, logging and mining would accelerate the release of carbon, particularly from peat swamp. The Leuser ecosystem, however, is protected by national legislation, and Mr Griffiths said he hoped that might save it.

Another wilderness area, Ulu Masen, which was slated to become a 735,000-hectare preservation area to prevent carbon emissions, is also not recognised under the spatial plan.

This finally ends the ambitions of Australian green entrepreneur Dorjee Sun to make Ulu Masen forests a vast generator of forest carbon credits for the global market.

Mr Zaini's office did not return calls, but Aceh public servant Mr Saminuddin said logging should be allowed again.

''The nature of the logging moratorium is that it's temporary so it can be revoked any time,'' he said. ''It is true that some concession holders are asking for their rights to be revived. The Aceh government has not responded to their requests, but I think it is time for logging concessions to be reactivated … We have to understand that the people need timber to support their activities.''