Leuser’s Last Stand

A critical ecosystem in Sumatra is under threat from illegal palm oil plantations, which feed into a global supply chain.

Singkil, in South Aceh, is where the swamp meets the sea. The road from Subulussalam snakes through it, following the course of the Alas River to its mouth, then veering left along the coast.

On the southern side, the Indian Ocean breaks against Sumatra’s shore, the spray from the wave tops just visible through the trees; on the other, a dark-red mud track runs into the peatland forest. It is early November, and the near-daily rainstorms have soaked the earth, making it a brutal struggle through the thigh-deep peat to reach solid ground. At the end of the track, a tunnel has been smashed through the trees, leaving broken trunks and turned-over soil.

“That’s just happened today,” says Ahmadi, a chain-smoking, whip-thin activist who seems able to skate over the top of the peat, pausing only to light up. A local informant has tipped off an Acehnese environmental organisation that Ahmadi belongs to, and he has come to investigate. It is barely noon.

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