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Scientists urge Indonesian president to nix dam in orangutan habitat

Baby Tapanuli orangutan in Indonesia. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

  • Twenty-five of the world’s top environmental scientists have sent a letter to Indonesia’s president, seeking a halt to a planned hydroelectric dam in the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, the rarest species of great ape on Earth.
  • The scientists also slammed the Chinese government for funding the project as a part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, saying it has disregarded the environmental consequences of building and operating the dam.
  • The developers of the project have dismissed the criticism, saying they will enforce strong environmental safeguards to protect the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan.

JAKARTATwenty-five of the world’s top environmental scientists have lambasted plans to construct a hydroelectric dam in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, because it would threaten the rarest species of great ape on Earth.

The scientists, members of the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT), outlined their concerns in a letter addressed to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, which was hand-delivered to the office of the president’s chief of staff, or KSP, on July 10.

The scientists said the $1.6 billion hydropower project threatened the Batang Toru forest in North Sumatra province, home to the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

The species was only described last year, but is already teetering on the brink of extinction, as its habitat in the Batang Toru ecosystem continues to be fragmented by infrastructure projects.

Over the course of three generations, the population of Tapanuli orangutans has plummeted by 83 percent, leaving fewer than 800 individuals surviving in a tiny tract of forest less than one-fifth the size of the metropolitan area that comprises Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

The Batang Toru hydropower project could be the death knell for the Tapanuli orangutan, according to William F. Laurance, a tropical ecologist at Australia’s James Cook University, who led a major study of the species and described it as “the rarest and most gravely endangered” great ape on Earth.

“I cannot imagine anywhere else in the world where a project like this would even be seriously entertained,” he told Mongabay by email. “The Batang Toru project will slice its tiny remaining habitat in half via the roads, power-line clearings, and massive pipeline required for the project, along with flooding some prime habitat for the ape.”

Much of the scientists’ concerns have been explained in great detail in a recent study published in the journal Current Biology, which estimates that the project could destroy more than one-quarter of the Tapanuli orangutan’s existing habitat.

The group of scientists has now appealed directly to the president, calling on him to protect the Tapanuli orangutan.

“Mr. President, we know well of your strong background in forestry and business and your leading efforts to reduce the spectre of destructive fires in Sumatra,” the letter reads. “We appeal now to you to help conserve one of the most unique and high-profile wildlife species in all of Indonesia.”

The scientists said the government could do so by halting further developments in the ape’s last remaining habitat; strengthening the habitat’s protected status; reconnecting the remaining habitat blocks via forest corridors; and listing the Tapanuli orangutan as a high-profile protected species on the Indonesian protected species list.

“An action of this nature would bring you the enduring gratitude of many Indonesians and overseas citizens eager to see global conservation leaders emerging in our increasingly self-interested world, at a time when leaders of many other nations seem to have lost sight of the importance of a healthy environment for our citizens and children,” the letter says.

Map of the Batang Toru ecosystem, home to the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in Sumatra.

Global reputation on the line?

The planned hydropower plant was announced in 2012 and will be the largest in Sumatra once completed as scheduled by 2022. The Indonesian government considers it a priority project under the Jokowi administration’s wider infrastructure-building push.

But due to environmental concerns, some major funders, such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, have already backed out of underwriting the project. Among the reasons cited are that the ape’s habitat is far too sensitive environmentally to sustain further development.

However, the project received a lifeline when the state-owned Bank of China pledged financing for the dam as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an immensely ambitious project through which China wants to boost trade across Asia and beyond by building a massive infrastructure corridor linking it across the region to Europe.

Handling the construction of the dam will be state-owned Chinese utility Sinohydro.

Laurance said both the Chinese companies and their Indonesian collaborators were doing everything possible to push ahead with the project.

“On top of that, they are actively debating our conclusions, which were published in a top scientific journal, and grossly misrepresenting the environmental consequences of the dam project,” he said.

Besides threatening the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan, the dam project also has another serious implication, one that could have dire consequences for other countries where China’s Belt and Road Initiative is planned, according to Laurance.

He said China had promised the Belt and Road Initiative would be “green,” “circular” and emblematic of “green civilization.”

“But if they will not back off from a project that would have such dire consequences — not just for the Tapanuli orangutan but also for other critically endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger — then how can we possibly take their word about the other 7,000-odd infrastructure and extractive-industry projects that will comprise the Belt and Road Initiative?” Laurance said.

Therefore, he said, the Batang Toru project was shaping up to be an acid test of China’s veracity and intent.

“And to date we have seen nothing to give optimism that key parts of the Belt and Road Initiative will be anything more than an environmental calamity — one that will encompass some 70 nations and half of the planet,” Laurance said.

Onrizal Onrizal, a forestry researcher at North Sumatra University, said both Indonesia and China were putting their global reputation at stake over a project that would generate only a modest amount of electricity.

“Building the hydroproject would literally bring global shame to Indonesia and China,” Onrizal said. “This is one of our closest living relatives — how could we risk sacrificing it for such a small benefit?”

Laurance said that he had not heard back from Jokowi’s office since the letter was delivered. He added that other initiatives protesting the project would proceed.

“This is certainly not the end of our campaign; indeed it is only the beginning,” Laurance said.

Bornean (left), Sumatran (middle) and Tapanuli (right) male orangutans. Image by Eric Kilby, Aiwok and Tim Laman via Wikimedia Commons (GFDL).

Minimizing the impacts

The Batang Toru hydropower project’s developer, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), told Mongabay in May that the development of the dam was still in the early stages.

“We just constructed a road to reach the location,” said Agus Djoko Ismanto, the senior environmental adviser at NSHE. “We just opened the access.”

Agus said the company had built the road in parallel with the river, to minimize the fragmentation of the orangutan’s habitat, adding this was part of the company’s efforts to dampen the environmental impacts of the project.

He said the company was also conducting several studies to assess the dam’s wider impacts. Agus said the developers would implement the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), a standard widely applied by multilateral donors, international agencies and private lending institutions, to identify, predict and assess the type and scale of potential biodiversity impacts.

This process would complement the mandatory environmental impact assessment required under Indonesian law, known as Amdal.

“This company will voluntarily follow the standard of the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank,” Agus said. “So there are things that are not included in the Amdal process, but included here [in the ESIA], such as the study on biodiversity.”

To assess the true impacts of the dam, the company will conduct an orangutan population survey along the built road. And while new roads would have to be constructed to support the development of the dam, Agus said the company would create wildlife corridors if the roads happened to cut off smaller populations of the orangutan.

They estimated as many as 12 wildlife corridors will have to be built in anticipation of the impact of the new roads.

“These will be built in stages,” Agus said. “There are four [corridors] ready to be built.”

Another point of criticism is the vast amount of land that scientists says would be cleared to make way for the planned dam and reservoir, spanning an estimated 70 square kilometers (27 square miles).

Tito Prano, a senior communications adviser at NSHE, said that while the developers indeed had permits to clear that amount of land, they wouldn’t clear all of it. Instead, they would only clear less than 6 square kilometers, or about 2.3 square miles, he said, with the rest to be returned to the management of the local government.

“If the government designates [the returned area] as protected forest and we are asked to take care of it, we will surely do it,” Tito said. “[Because] if the land is converted into palm oil plantations, then the water table will be disturbed.”


Additional reporting by Indra Nugraha and Sapariah Saturi.

Editor’s note: William F. Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.

Banner image: Baby Tapanuli orangutan in Indonesia. Image by Maxime Aliaga.

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