On Aug. 24, indigenous people in North Sumatra staged a protest against the development of a planned 510-megawatt hydroelectric dam which threatens to evict them from their ancestral land.
The protest turned sour after a woman was knocked over during a scuffle between protestors and people claiming to be representatives of the project’s developer, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy.
The project also threatens to damage the ecosystem of the Batang Toru forest, home to Critically Endangered Sumatran tigers and orangutans.
Dozens of indigenous people gathered in a village in western Indonesia last month to protest against the development of a planned 510-megawatt hydroelectric dam that threatens to evict them from land they hold sacred.
The protest, which took place Aug. 24 in Luat Lombang village of North Sumatra’s Sipirok subdistrict, turned sour as violence erupted between locals and people claiming to be land surveyors working for the project’s developer, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE).
Demand and supply
With officials estimating that electricity demand will increase by 9 percent per year, Indonesia is in the midst of an intensive drive to increase its energy production. At the same time, the country has declared its intention to increase renewables to 23 percent of the national energy mix by 2025. Geothermal, hydropower, and biofuels are top investment priorities.
The vast archipelagic country is estimated to contain up to 26 gigawatts of hydropower potential, according to the 2011 Masterplan Study for Hydropower Development in Indonesia. However, as of 2013, the country had less than 4,100 megawatts of installed hydropower capacity, according to the energy ministry.
The hydropower plant in South Tapanuli district, which was announced in 2012, is said to be the largest on Sumatra island and is considered a priority project by the federal government. The development, which is scheduled to be completed 2022, will occupy 645 hectares (2.49 square miles) of land along the Batang Toru river in South Tapanuli district. It will involve the construction of a powerhouse, a substation, headrace and tailrace tunnels, a reservoir, spillway and related infrastructure, the installation of turbines, generators and transformers and the laying of transmission lines.
The project has met with resistance from indigenous peoples who refuse to sell their lands at the prices the company has offered. It also threatens the habitats of a number of endangered wildlife species.
Community members protest
On Aug. 24, a small group of representatives of developer PT NSHE, accompanied by local police officers, arrived in Luat Lombang village to survey the land designated for the hydropower plant.
The visit was met with a protest staged by some 38 men and women from three neighboring villages — Pargodungan, Paske and Dano — who attempted to block the path to the project site.
“If there’s still an objection, please submit a lawsuit to the court. What the company’s doing right now is based on the law because they’ve made payments [for the land],” said PT NSHE lawyer Syamsul Alam Nasution.
The situation heated up when the company’s representatives insisted their workers be allowed to carry out the job.
In a video of the incident provided by local activists, a man named Syarif, who identified himself as a PT NSHE representative, can be seen telling protestors he is entitled to enter the village: “Our lawyer said there’s no need for a negotiation anymore. I’m allowed to take what’s rightfully mine. I have paid [for the land], I will own it.”
Violence then erupted after Syarif appeared later in the video to shove one of the protesting women off the path into the bush. During the chaos, another woman claimed that a man, who she says identified himself as a former police general, elbowed her in the abdomen when she refused to leave the protest. The woman, who’s been identified as S. Harahap, collapsed and was taken to the Sipirok hospital.
“It was so painful that I fell,” she told Mongabay-Indonesia at the hospital. “I heard the man claiming to be a former general telling us to leave and that the land is not ours. We held our ground and he elbowed me in the stomach.”
The incident prompted the protesters to immediately submit a report against the alleged former general to the police. However, the protestors say officers from the Sipirok subdistrict and South Tapanuli police stations refused to receive the complaint.
Meanwhile, the North Sumatra police have denied claims of an attack by any officer, adding that the police were only deployed to beef up security during the company’s land survey.
“If there was an assault, it was reportedly committed by a company official, not a police officer,” said Senior Commissioner Rina Sari Ginting, the spokeswoman of the North Sumatra police, to Mongabay.
She added that the police are investigating the case.
Andy S. Harahap, a representative from one of the indigenous communities, said the people regretted the incident, and noted that they were not against infrastructure development as long as they were treated fairly.
“They inherited these lands from their ancestors. The rice fields and rubber plantations that they’ve developed themselves are potentially more profitable than the price that the company has offered,” said Harahap.
In 2013, for instance, PT NSHE wanted to purchase the lands in three neighborhoods at the price of 6,000 rupiah ($0.46) per meter, according to Harahap. The locals rejected the offer.
Two weeks later, said Harahap, the company returned and threatened that people who continued to reject the company’s offer would have to seek compensation via the courts.
According to Harahap, some people got scared and decided to sell their lands at 8,000 rupiah per meter. The following year, he added, the company paid another visit and offered to buy the lands at between 10,000 – 60,000 rupiah per meter. As of May 2016, the company had acquired 87 percent of the planned 645-hectare site.
In 2016 statements to local news website GoSumut.com, officials from PT NSHE emphasized that they have carried out socialization efforts in which the company’s officials talk with respected figures from some of the indigenous communities. In addition, the company also claimed to have set up community relations facilitation teams to resolve complaints from the locals.
Threats to wildlife
The development of the hydropower plant in South Tapanuli district is also predicted to damage the biodiversity of Batang Toru forest, which is home to the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. sumatrae) and the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), both of which are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
“We must anticipate everything to avoid the destruction of biodiversity there,” said Fitri CH Noor, a forestry officer at the North Sumatra Natural Resources Conservation Agency.
PT NSHE has pledged to protect the wildlife habitats by establishing within the project site a restricted zone to prevent poachers and illegal loggers from entering.
“As the project moves forward, we will continue keeping safe the environment,” said Arif Siregar of the company’s social and environment department, in Aug. 2016.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Sept. 2, 2017.
Banner image: An orangutan hangs from a tree of a forest in Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.