Sumatran Forest Designated a “World Heritage Site in Danger”

By Nick Engelfried on Wed, 07/27/2011 – 11:58am

Designation of a new World Heritage Site in Danger by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has given environmentalists hope that the international community may come to the rescue of one of the most threatened strongholds of biodiversity on the planet: the tropical forests of Indonesia.

Responding to threats like illegal logging and conversion to palm oil plantations that are eating away at Indonesia’s remaining forest cover, last month UNESCO placed a World Heritage Site on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on its list of culturally and biologically important places in danger. The Tropical Rainforest Heritage Site of Sumatra, which was first named a World Heritage Site in 2004, covers 2.5 million hectares and consists of three separate national parks.

Though protected by law on paper, all three parks are suffering from illegal logging, poaching, and other threats that are degrading the tropical ecosystem and threatening hundreds of species with extinction.

“Including the exceptional Sumatran rainforests on the Danger list today signals a message of international concern to support this site,” said Peter Shadie of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which independently advises UNESCO.

The site is home to more than 200 mammal species, including the critically endangered orangutan and Sumatran tiger. It also provides habitat for an estimated 580 kinds of birds and 10,000 species of plants. Many of the plants and animals found on the site are endemic to Indonesia, meaning they occur naturally nowhere else in the world.

Environmental groups hope the Danger listing will bring attention to the plight of Indonesia’s forests, and force governments and corporations to treat conservation of the area more seriously. The title of World Heritage Site in Danger is reserved for Heritage Sites that UNESCO has deemed are in especially great need of further protection to preserve their cultural or biological value.

Though the Danger listing doesn’t in itself guarantee more resources will be spent on conservation, it may force governments and corporations to take threats to Sumatra’s forests more seriously. Ultimately the fate of the forests rests in the hands of the Indonesian government, and palm oil and pulp and paper companies that are eating away at the archipelago nation’s last pristine forests.

“The palm oil and pulp and paper industries represent the largest drivers of rainforest destruction in Indonesia, posing a grave threat to Sumatra’s remaining forests, communities and endangered species,” wrote Hailey Denenberg of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network.

Both palm oil and pulp and paper companies are clearing Indonesia’s forests to feed growing demand for their products on the international market. Palm oil is a common food ingredient in the United States, and is also being used with increased frequency in developing nations like China. Cheap wood pulp from Indonesian forests is used to make paper for everything from book pages to children’s toy packaging sold around the world.

Over the last few years environmental groups like the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace have successfully pushed many major companies to abandon their ties with Indonesian deforestation. Most recently, Greenpeace announced last week that Lego has become the first major toy company to pledge to eliminate paper pulp from endangered Indonesian forests from its packaging.

Designation of some of the Sumatra’s most pristine rainforest ecosystems as a World Heritage Site in Danger may put even more pressure on companies involved in clearing Indonesia’s forests. The listing is far from the end of the road in the long fight to save Indonesian biodiversity from extinction. However it marks an important symbolic victory for environmentalists concerned about the plight of the world’s most endangered forests.

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Category: Sumatra Rainforest