A white-domed mosque rises in the center of Bener Meriah, one of the districts in the Gayo Highlands. From the uphill highway, mist shrouds the forest hills in the distance, adding to the sense of sacredness that hangs between the mosque and the virgin forests. Aceh, the only province in Indonesia to practice Islamic law, is home to the largest remaining patch of rainforest on the island of Sumatra.
This patch, called the Leuser ecosystem, stretches majestically for hundreds of kilometers from the southern boundary (and parts of North Sumatra) to Aceh's northern boundary. About half of Sumatra's remaining elephant population can be found here. So too are populations of Sumatran tigers, orangutans and many other animal and plant species. They have made the Leuser ecosystem their last stronghold, as lowland forests on the island of Sumatra have been almost completely cleared for oil palm plantations and industrial crops.
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On a map, the Leuser ecosystem sits at the heart of Aceh province, providing clean water for the 13 districts that surround it. In each of these districts, syar'iyah courts are established. Since the Indonesian government's peace with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005, these courts have been authorized to impose punishments on those who violate any of the provisions of qanun, the Islamic sharia legislation created by the Aceh government. (Qanun Jinayah, which prescribes flogging for adultery and sex crimes, is one of the most frequently highlighted).
With this authority, Aceh has the opportunity to apply Islamic law to protect the environment. In the last five years, qanuns on forestry (2016) and wildlife were issued (2019). But can these legal instruments protect the Leuser ecosystem and its wildlife?
To answer this question, I traveled to the border area of the Leuseur ecosystem in North Aceh, visited the Syar'iyah court, and spoke with several conservationists and environmental activists in the area. Instead of implementing the concept of Islamic environmentalism, I found that it is the politics and history attached to Aceh's forests that hold the key to preserving this remaining piece of paradise.