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What is the Leuser Ecosystem and why should we care?

Indonesia now has the highest rate of forest destruction in the world and Sumatra is at the top of that list. Here forest cover was reduced by 55% between 1985 and 2014, with corresponding drastic declines in wildlife populations across the island as a result.

A cause for great concern across northern Sumatra is a new illegal[1] Spatial Land Use Plan adopted by the Government of Aceh province, that completely ignores the existence of the world renowned Leuser Ecosystem (LE) National Strategic Area.  The forests of the Leuser Ecosystem also help comprise the UNESCO Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra World Heritage Site, and are the last place on earth where orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers still co-exist in the wild. All four of these iconic species are now classified as Critically Endangered, primarily due to the rapid conversion of their forests. 


As well as its importance for biodiversity conservation, the Leuser Ecosystem is also a vital life support system for well over four million people. The ecosystem services it provides have been valued at more than USD 350 million per year and include clean water supplies, flood and landslide mitigation, and fresh water fisheries. The vast Leuser forests and deep peat swamps also store and sequester huge amounts of carbon, playing an extremely important role in climate change mitigation. The Leuser Ecosystem is therefore of global significance, and not just national or regional importance. Indeed, an article in the journal Science by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) listed the Leuser Ecosystem as one of the ‘World’s Most Irreplaceable Protected Areas’ (Le Saout et al. 2013). It is also recognized under Indonesian National Law as a National Strategic Area for its Environmental Function, within which deleterious activities are not permitted.


Despite these facts, under the Province of Aceh’s current Spatial Land Use Plan, the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra’s most significant remaining tropical rainforest and one of the richest remaining representations of the biodiversity of Southeast Asia is now effectively open for new roads, new plantations, and other inappropriate developments. 


However, all is not yet lost and there is still some cause for hope. Many efforts are underway, both within Indonesia and elsewhere, to rectify this dire situation and prevent destructive new developments from taking place. Field projects are being managed to protect the forests, prosecute lawbreakers, regenerate forests and even to create entirely new, viable populations of Critically Endangered species such as the Sumatran orangutan.  These actions are complemented by teams working to affect conservation policy, including legal actions against perpetrators found to be threatening Leuser’s future – some of which have already resulted in record fines and jail times being imposed on guilty parties.  There are also international campaigns and petitions addressed at both companies and governments that increase transparency and accountability and can lead to real change on the ground, if supported and backed by enough voices! For example, when enough people (potential customers) tell a company they refuse to support damaging or unsustainable practices theywill listen in order to protect their profits and their brand. Likewise, governments will also pick up the phone and start asking questions.


Companies such as LUSH are leading the way on this front, and have been doing so for many years without the need for consumer pressure, and should be commended for their efforts.  Others can be brought along too, helping to create the world that we and our grandchildren deserve.  We all have a role to play in speeding up this process though, by demanding sustainably produced non-harmful products when we do our daily shopping.


We firmly believe that despite the scale of the threats facing the Leuser Ecosystem, its critical importance to everyone, not just locally but globally, requires us to act. Together it is possible to prevent further degradation and destruction and to restore Leuser’s forests and peatlands to their original magnificence. Not only would this help in reducing Indonesia’s carbon emissions, and preventing the extinction of countless rare and threatened species, some of which live nowhere else on earth. It would also maintain and guarantee the ecological services the Leuser Ecosystem provides for the regions human population, who themselves deserve a future based on sustainable long term economic development and prosperity.


This article was written by our campaign partner, Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari.



Laumonier Y, Uryu Y, Stüwe M, et al (2010) Ecofloristic sectors and deforestation threats in Sumatra: identifying new conservation area network priorities for ecosystem-based land use planning. Biodivers Conserv 19:1153–1174.

Le Saout S, Hoffmann M, Shi Y, et al (2013) Protected Areas and Effective Biodiversity Conservation. Science (80- ) 342:1–3. doi: 10.1126/science.1239268

Margono BA, Potapov P V, Turubanova S, et al (2014) Primary forest cover loss in Indonesia over 2000–2012. Nat Clim Chang 1–6. doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2277

van Beukering P, Grogan K, Hansfort SL, Seager D (2009) An Economic Valuation of Aceh’s Forest:The Road Towards Sustainable Development.

WWF (2015) Saving Forests At Risk. In: WWF Living Forests Report: Chapter 5. Gland, Switzerland, 

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