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Coal, climate and orangutans – Indonesia’s quandary

What do the climate and orangutans have in common? They are both threatened by coal – the first by burning it, and the second by mining it.

At the recent United Nations Climate Summit in New York, world leaders and multinational corporations pledged a variety of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation to avert a looming disaster caused by global warming.

Indonesia, home to most of the world’s orangutans, is a major player in both emissions and deforestation, with the third largest tropical forest area in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo Basin. In 2012, Indonesia surpassed Brazil as the country with the highest annual rate of primary forest loss. The country is also ranked the fourth top emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (after China, the U.S., and the European Union) during some years, largely due to high deforestation rates and peatland fires.

Indonesia has the highest rate of forest loss in the world, with the largest area located in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. At current deforestation rates, little will be left by 2020. Map courtesy of WWF.
Indonesia has the highest rate of forest loss in the world, with the largest area located in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. At current deforestation rates, little will be left by 2020. Map courtesy of WWF.

The New York Declaration on Forests, announced at the UN Climate Summit, called on partners to work to at least halve the rate of natural forest loss globally by 2020 and strive to end natural forest loss by 2030. It also targeted achieving a reduction in deforestation-related emissions by 4.5-8.8 billion tons per year by 2030.

The now-former Indonesia president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, announced in 2009 a voluntary commitment to reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 26 percent. In May 2011 the commitment was put into action with the issuance of the Presidential Instruction No. 10 that called for a moratorium on granting new licenses for forest clearance. This moratorium, which many have criticized as not going far enough, is in force until May 2015.

Baby Orangutan in tree in Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /
Baby Orangutan in tree in Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /

Coal boom

However, Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions don’t just come from deforestation, but also, indirectly, from its role as a major coal exporter. Burning coal is the largest single source of carbon emissions worldwide and Indonesia is supplying this industry. In fact, Indonesia’s coal exports have increased more than 500 percent over the last decade, from 60 million tons in 2000 to 304 million tons in 2012. This makes Indonesia the world’s biggest exporter of thermal coal.

It gets worse. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) predicts that Indonesia’s coal production will continue to increase 4.8 percent annually through 2020, when it will reach 450 million tons. The majority of the production will not be burned at home, but will continue to be exported. By 2035, the IEA estimates Indonesia will produce 550 million tons of coal. Even two decades from now Indonesia is projected to remain the world’s leading thermal coal producer and exporter.

Indonesia is the largest coal exporter in the world. The IEA predicts that Indonesia will hold this position even in two decades time.
Indonesia is the largest coal exporter in the world. The IEA predicts that Indonesia will hold this position even in two decades time.

This means that even if Indonesia manages to curb its own greenhouse gas emissions, it will continue to export them in the form of coal and suffer the consequences of global warming as if it had burned the coal itself.

And it appears that Indonesia will continue to have buyers for that expansion of coal production, most of them in Asia. China is the biggest purchaser of Indonesian coal, but after Japan closed its nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster, it has replaced India to become the second largest purchaser of Indonesian coal. Today, Japan is also the second largest coal importer in the world after China. Coal has a clear importance for Indonesia’s economy as the commodity accounts for around 85 percent of the country’s mining revenue.

Despite warnings for decades over the link between coal burning and global warming, coal energy use continues to rise globally. A recent study found that existing power plants around the world will pump out more than 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide over their expected lifetimes, significantly adding to atmospheric levels of the climate-warming gas.

“Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” said Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at University of California Irvine and the study’s lead author. “But worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion.”

“Far from solving the climate change problem, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse,” he added.

Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University suggest their findings could be used by policymakers to evaluate the long-term climate impacts of current investments.

We’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade. A high-carbon future is being locked in, concluded the Davis and Socolow report. Photo by Paul Jones.
We’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade. A high-carbon future is being locked in, concluded the Davis and Socolow report. Photo by Paul Jones.

“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: a high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said Socolow, professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments.”

Despite such concerns, the Indonesian mining industry is betting on a continued global expansion of coal-powered plants, which it hopes to supply. The government’s 2011 Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Development designated Kalimantan a “mining and energy corridor” and outlined plans for the construction of a “coal railway” in the province to dramatically accelerate extraction of the fossil fuel there.

A coal mine in Kalimantan. Credit: David Beltra
A coal mine in Kalimantan. Credit: David Beltra

“Everyone is pumping (up) their production,” Herlan Siagian, general manager for marketing at BUMI Resources, Asia’s biggest thermal coal producer told Reuters.

Kalimantan, which is Indonesia’s part of Borneo, is the main area for coal mining in the country. The area accounts for 83 percent of proven coal reserves in Indonesia and these massive deposits generate more than 90 percent of Indonesia’s coal production for domestic use and exports. There are almost 4,000 coal-mining concessions in Indonesia, most of them in Kalimantan.

Big coal meets great apes

What does the expansion of coal mines mean for Kalimantan’s forests? And what effect might these coal mines have on Kalimantan’s flagship wildlife species, the orangutan? The orangutan is emblematic of much of Kalimatan’s tropical forest habitat, making it a flagship species for the region.

Coal mines do not pose much of a threat to forests in Kalimantan, according to Erik Meijaard and Krystof Obidzinski, both with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in Bogor, Indonesia.

“We have a study in review on the impacts of coal mining on deforestation in Kalimantan, with coal mining causing one percent of all deforestation between 2000 and 2010,” Meijaard told, adding that coal mining “was not a major threat to forests between 2000 and 2010, certainly not compared to other drivers… It might become a bigger threat based on the amount of land given out for exploration, but a lot of this is likely to be pure land speculation…”

Obidzinski added that their research is “intended to highlight the emergence of coal mining as a major commercial landuse in Kalimantan and indicate potential implications if the demand for Indonesia’s coal remains strong (particularly in India and China).”

He added that, “so far… the environmental impacts have been limited… Having said that, another important finding … is the fact that negative impacts can become much worse if the market for coal holds and more licensed concession are activated.”

The researchers found that there has been a massive increase in land allocated for coal mine concessions in Kalimantan in recent years, but this has not translated to imminent high deforestation rates attributed to coal.

“Compared to deforestation caused by agriculture, plantations, fire etc., this [coal mine deforestation] is actually very small,” Meijaard noted.

Concerning more recent coal mine land allocations, Meijaard added that “in many of these concessions there will probably never be any mining” because there was no coal, or it was not economically viable to mine even if there were.

“As for coal mines not being a major cause of deforestation – perhaps they’re not cutting down forests at the same rate as agricultural businesses, but they are probably much worse in the depth of the habitat damage that they can do,” said Anne Russon, a researcher from York University in Canada, to Russon runs the Orangutan Kutai Project in the Kutai National Park.

The KPC coal mine is Indonesia’s largest. Coal mines don’t destroy as much forest as logging or agriculture, but the damage is deep. Photo Kevin Yeoh
The KPC coal mine is Indonesia’s largest. Coal mines don’t destroy as much forest as logging or agriculture, but the damage is deep. Photo Kevin Yeoh

Case study: coal and Kutai National Park

The Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan is an orangutan habitat area with relatively large numbers of the Northeast Bornean orangutan subspecies, Pongo pygmaeus morio. The park is also the only IUCN category I-IV protected area in Indonesia where production mining is indicated as taking place. Categories I-IV denote the least disturbed protected areas with the highest conservation value. IUCN’s members called on “all IUCN’s State members to prohibit by law, all exploration and extraction of mineral resources in protected areas corresponding to IUCN protected area management categories I–IV.”

Industrial mining is not being done inside Kutai National Park boundaries, but the Kaltim Prima Coal (KPC) mine, belonging to BUMI Resources, is just across the Sangatta River, the Park’s northern boundary, and the Indominico Mandiri coal mine, belonging to Indo Tambangraya Megah, is situated on the park’s southeastern boundary.

The bright yellow area on the far right of the map is the Kutai National Park, the only IUCN Category I-IV protected area in Indonesia with active mining. Map courtesy of the Arcus Foundation.
The bright yellow area on the far right of the map is the Kutai National Park, the only IUCN Category I-IV protected area in Indonesia with active mining. Map courtesy of the Arcus Foundation.

BUMI is Indonesia’s single largest coal exporter, exporting 68.3 million tons in 2012. The KPC mine produced almost half of that, with revenues of U.S. $3.6 billion and production rising almost 30 percent to 53.5 million tons in 2013. The KPC concession is almost 91,000 hectares (351 square miles) in area, although the actual mined area is much less, at present in several different pits scattered around the concession. It is Indonesia’s largest coal mine.

“KPC is across the river from our wild orangutan field research site inside Kutai; we feel their blasting,” said Anne Russon, giving a good idea of the proximity.

Kutai National Park, 198,600 hectares (767 square miles) in area, has had a chequered history with decades of legal and illegal resource exploitation. The national park was not officially gazetted until 1996, and by that time the eastern part had been significantly degraded by logging, oil exploration, and agriculture. When the KPC mine began operations in 1989, workers and their families flooded into the concession, expanding

Orangutans in Kutai. Photo courtesy of Anne Russon.

The Kutai National Park orangutans are threatened by coal mine expansion. Photo courtesy of Anne Russon.

Sangatta township, and people began accessing the park with increasing frequency. Illegal hunting, artisanal gold mining, and tree poaching intensified.

In spite of the degradation, Kutai is still an important refuge for ten primate species, including the threatened orangutans, the Bornean gibbon (Hylobates muelleri), and the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus)—all three listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List—as well as Hose’s langur (Presbytis hosei), considered Vulnerable. Ninety other mammal species, including the clouded leopard and sun bear, and 300 bird species also call the park home. A 2010 survey estimated that the number of orangutans had risen from 600 in 2004 to possibly as many as 2,000 inside the park.

Anne Russon feels that the number is probably too high, however, commenting, “Personally, I’d guess closer to 1,000 than 2,000 but that’s my conservative thinking…”

Still, it’s a rare bit of good news in orangutan conservation.

Just how many orangutans in the area?

There have also been orangutan surveys conducted outside the park in the multi-use landscape. Yaya Rayadin, a lecturer in the Forestry Faculty of the Mulawarman University in Samarinda, the provincial capital, and head of ECOSITROP (Ecology and Conservation Center for Tropical Studies), has been involved in all of the surveys, including those in the park.

Satellite images show the expansion of mining area in the KPC mine concession from 2005 to 2014. Photo by JATAM. Click image to enlarge.

Rayadin has prepared a report summarizing the results of over 66 kilometers (41 miles) of transects carried out in primary and secondary forest, karst forest, reclaimed post-mining areas, industrial plantation forest, and oil palm plantations. The methodology is based on counting orangutans’ sleeping nests to estimate the density of individuals per square kilometer, then extrapolating this to the total sample area.

Although the highest density recorded was in a reclaimed post-mining area sample – 7.66 individuals per square kilometer – Rayadin told that because of forest fragmentation in mine concessions, orangutans may be compressed into small areas, raising density.

But when converted to the whole area, Rayadin claimed that the “number of individual orangutans [is] not so high, i.e. eight to 12 individuals” – an extremely low density for the almost 91,000 hectares (351 square miles) of the concession area.

“I wouldn’t rely on the value of eight” as the total number of orangutans in the concession, noted Anne Russon, “my sense it is way too low. KPC has also translocated orangutans that range in its concession; I don’t know how many, and some were probably moved into the national park.”

Rayadin confirmed he had recommended that orangutans which came too close to working areas be moved to avoid conflict with humans, which in Indonesia often means death for the orangutans. He has also recommended that forest corridors be left to allow orangutans to move to Kutai and other foraging areas.

The 2012 KPC Sustainability Report, the most recent available, adds some clarification to orangutan numbers. The minimum of eight applies to four reclamation areas. The total number of reclamation areas is not given, but with the most recent count of 18 active mining pits there are probably quite a few that have been closed and reclaimed since 1989 when KPC began operations. In addition, some of the primary and secondary forest that was sampled is found in the mine concession area. Therefore, the number of orangutans could be much higher than the eight to twelve cited by Rayadin and in KPC literature.

The Indominico Mandiri coal mine, with a concession area of just over 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), abuts the southeast border of Kutai National Park. Their website and Sustainability reports do not even mention orangutans, and correspondence with Puji Rahadin, the
Quality, Safety and Environment officer of Indo Tambangraya Megah (ITM), the owners of Indominico Mandiri, proved no more enlightening.

“Based on differences of forest cover we established 12 permanent [monitoring] plots and in the monitoring activities we collaborate with experts from Mulawarman University and ECOSITROP,” explained Rahadin. “The orangutan conservation in ITM is based on regulation [by the] Indonesian Government, one of the regulations is [based on] The Orangutan Action Plan.”

Along the southwest border of Kutai National Park, contiguous with Indominico Mandiri, are two large industrial plantations intended for pulp and paper. A 2010 survey estimated that there was a minimum of 1,938 orangutans in just one of the plantations, which was completely unexpected.

Map showing the Indominico Mandiri coal mine on the southeast boundary with Kutai N.P. and the industrial acacia plantations on the southwest. From Meijaard et al. Click image to enlarge.

“Our more recent work still seems to support a fairly high density of orangutans within these plantations, and within other components of this multi-functional landscape (e.g., coal mines…),” Stephanie Spehar, of the University of Wisconsin, said. She has been working with Yaya Rayadin on a variety of issues that affect orangutan conservation.

“[W]e don’t know enough about the potential long-term impact of these landscapes on orangutans yet,” said Spehar. “Orangutans are long-lived animals who are very adaptable – but there might be a limit to that adaptability and it might take a long time to see that. Just because there are a lot of orangutans there right now doesn’t mean there will be a lot there in the future.”

Anne Russon agrees that the Northeast Kalimantan morio subspecies “stand out as exceptionally adaptable…. [and] orangutans have to be exceptionally tough to make it” in Northeast Kalimantan because of available food limitations and climatic factors.

“The reality is that these kinds of multi-functional landscapes – where human activity is a major part of the picture – make up an increasingly large percentage of the known orangutan range. If we are going to conserve orangutans, we need to know how they are using these landscapes and what we need to do to manage these populations properly to ensure their long-term survival,” added Spehar.

Given the survey results and the high adaptability of orangutans, there appear to be at least 3,000 and possibly more than 4,000 individuals in the area comprising the Kutai National Park, the two mine concessions and the industrial plantations. This would constitute up to 10 percent of the entire Borneo orangutan population. Russon estimates there are around 40,000 orangutans left on the island, down from the IUCN Red List estimations of 45,000-69,000 completed in 2003.

The commitments to build new coal-fired power plants, reported by the Davis and Socolow study, and the drastic increase in land allocated to coal mine concessions revealed by Obidzinski and Meijaard, do not suggest that the future looks bright for either lowering greenhouse gas emissions or successful orangutan conservation.

Indonesia may thus find itself in a situation where even if it is successful in reducing deforestation and peatlands loss, those emissions savings will be offset or surpassed by surging coal production and export.


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