Indonesia: Hundreds of Aceh refugees involved in forest clearing

Apriadi Gunawan

Medan - Around 500 refugee families from Aceh have reportedly been engaged in forest conversion activities within the Gunung Leuser National Park (TNGL) in Langkat regency, North Sumatra, for the past 10 years, an official said Monday.

TNGL center head Harijoko said currently 554 Aceh refugee families continued to clear forested areas in the national park.

He said that in an effort to stop the forest conversion, his office planned to relocate the families to Solok regency in West Sumatra.

According to Harijoko, the plan has long been announced and was part of the central government's program, but it has not yet been realized because Solok regental administration is still encountering problems to change the zoning of the relocation site for the refugee families.

"The planned relocation area is still a forest conservation area. It has not yet been released by the Forestry Ministry as an area which can be used for the interest of the Aceh refugees," Harijoko told to The Jakarta Post.

He said his office was optimistic that the relocation issue would be resolved by early next year.

"We will relocate the Aceh refugee families from the Gunung Leuser National Park to Solok regency as soon as possible, most certainly by early next year," said Harijoko.

Harijoko added the sooner the Aceh refugees were relocated, the better it would be for the sake of forest preservation, but illegal logging in the national park would continue if the issue went on for too long.

Harijoko said hundreds of people had entered the TNGL and tried to clear areas of forest over the past few days, converting a hectare of forest within the park area.

"Residents have already tried to convert a hectare of forest into oil palm plantation areas, but we were quick to stop them," said Harijoko, adding authorities were able to evict those who had attempted to clear the forest in TNGL.

Based on data at the TNGL Center, the extent of damage from forest conversion had reached 18,000 of the park's total area of 1.1 million hectares spanning from North Sumatra to Aceh. The refugee families have turned 2,000 ha of the 18,000 ha area in Langkat regency into settlement areas.

Police have repeatedly warned the refugees - victims of the 1998 Aceh conflict - to immediately leave the national park, but the orders have fallen on deaf ears. The Acehnese refugees even fought back against authorities to stay in the park. Police have so far not been able to evict them, coming under attack on the number of occasions they have tried.

A community figure in the TNGL area, Hasanuddin Sitepu said the government should show a firm and fair stance in resolving the issue.

According to him, it is only natural that other residents are tempted to clear the forest in the National Park because the Aceh refugees have been allowed to do so for a long time.

Hasanuddin said that in 1998 the TNGL was involved in a conflict with local residents engaged in illegal logging the forest area.

As many as 96 residents were arrested, while authorities have still not dealt with the Aceh refugee families who illegally dominate areas in the park.

"It is natural that local residents are envious with the Aceh refugees who are being ignored by authorities [and are allowed] to clear the forest. Where's the justice in our country," he said.