BANDA ACEH: The courts in Aceh have failed to protect a carbon-rich peat forest and critically endangered orangutans from the actions of a palm oil company which the central government acknowledges has acted illegally.
After five months of detailed argument, the three-judge court sitting in Banda Aceh threw the case out on jurisdictional grounds, saying the complainants from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) should first have sought mediation with the company.
The lawyer for the complainants, Kamaruddin, said the judges had used the wrong legislation - the environmental law, not administrative law - to make their determination. He flagged an appeal.
And Riswan Zein, a representative of the environmental group Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari, said if the judges were going to insist on mediation, they should have mentioned it earlier in the case, which began in October.
The case began when Aceh's then governor, Irwandi Yusuf, signed a permit in August last year to allow the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam to set up new plantation in the environmentally sensitive Tripa peat swamp seven hours south of the province's capital.
Detailed maps presented to the court showed the concession was part of the Leuser Ecosystem, which is protected from development under Indonesia's 2008 national planning law.
Large parts of the concession also consisted of peat swamp of more than three metres in depth, making it a valuable store of carbon dioxide. The area also is one of the last redoubts of the endangered Sumatran orangutan, whose population in the area is estimated to now only number in the hundreds.
For all three reasons, permitting a plantation on the area and clearing it was illegal, the complainants argued.
The Sumatra-based landscape protection specialist Graham Usher told the Herald the company had begun clearing the swamp by burning, which is also illegal. It has also dug two canals to drain it, he said.
A spokesman for Mr Irwandi, who is running for re-election as governor on Monday, said he respected what the environmental groups had done in bringing the case, and the former governor would evaluate it.
Without resiling from his decision to issue the permit, Mr Irwandi would "sit down and talk" with the complainants, the spokesman said.
"I think this is what the court wants, that we have mediation," he said. "But if they want to appeal, we have to go through the court procedure first."
Last year Indonesia's secretary-general of the Ministry of Forestry, Hadi Daryanto, told the Jakarta Post that the PT Kallista Alam permit was "clearly a violation because the area in question is a peat forest".
"On the moratorium map it's clearly marked out as protected, but in the revision that followed, it was somehow excluded. That exclusion in itself is also a violation," Mr Hari said.
The permit also appears to breach Indonesia's international responsibilities under the REDD project, under which Norway has promised to pay the country $US1 billion ($9.6 million) for protecting its peat forests as a way of addressing climate change.
Late last month, another rash of peat forest in the area was burned and drained, prompting a coalition of environment groups to claim that, unless authorities stopped the illegal action, the local population of the Sumatran orangutan "could be extinct in a matter of months, even weeks if a prolonged dry spell were to set in" and fuel the fires.
Environment groups estimate 100 orangutans may have died in the fires of recent weeks.