The History of A Mystical Forest
The subtle combination of moderate Islam and mystical traditions in Aceh has resulted in the province’s forests being only slightly impacted by humans and no known extinctions of species have occurred in the last century. During the same time the rest of Sumatra has lost some 80 percent of its forests.
Until the 1980’s most Acehnese would not consider felling a large tree without first conducting a mystical ceremony. The opening up of Aceh’s forests to professional (and outside) concessionaires broke traditional taboos and demoralized many people who lived near the forests. They even joined in the logging themselves and during the boom they left their farms and rice fields untended and looked down on those who stuck to traditional ways.
This threatened the traditional fabric of many local societies. By the time illegal logging was brought under some semblance of control many of the arts, crafts, traditional building skills and customary norms were already in steep decline.
The first product to be exploited from the Leuser Ecosystem was rhino horn. Poachers would travel great distances into the remotest parts of the Leuser Ecosystem to trap the Sumatran Rhino. Today the population of these animals is presumed to be less than one hundred from an original population that may well have been in the thousands.
In the early 1980’s destructive fishing practices were introduced. Rivers were poisoned with powerful pesticides to reap an easy harvest of the once dense fish populations in Leuser. This has led to serious damage of river ecosystems in the area and has jeopardized the chances of full regeneration.
In 1987 the forests of the Leuser Ecosystem were opened up for commercial logging. The roads and trails constructed for these purposes enabled ready access to other resources such as rattan, damar resin, and wildlife. There was a wave of unsustainable extraction of these commodities leading to the virtual extinction of the most important species of rattan Calamus manna and the localized extinctions of Siamang. Following the extraction of easily accessed products, the degraded forest left over from the logging activities (including illegal logging) were frequently converted to agricultural land – either for commercial oil palm and rubber estates or for ad hoc clearance for plantations.
These forms of exploitation are not sustainable in Leuser. Most of the lowlands have been degraded through logging to the extent that they are no longer commercially viable. The easy harvest of river fish is now impossible and the ability of the Leuser Ecosystem to provide the ecological services for sustainable development is being compromised.