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Fight to protect the world’s most threatened great ape goes to court

Baby Tapanuli orangutan in Indonesia. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

  • Indonesia’s leading environmental watchdog has filed a lawsuit to block a project to build a dam and hydroelectric power plant in the Sumatran habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s newest known and most endangered great ape.
  • The lawsuit claims a series of administrative oversights in the project’s environmental impact permit, as well as a breach of zoning laws by building along a known tectonic fault line.
  • An online petition has also taken off, with more than 1.3 million people signing to call on President Joko Widodo to scrap the project.
  • Opposition to the project has also drawn the attention of top scientists from around the world, who last month signed an open letter to the president to press their case for the habitat to be preserved.

JAKARTA — A battle to save the world’s most endangered great ape has intensified as conservationists lodge a lawsuit and collect over a million signatures against a planned hydroelectric plant in Sumatra, Indonesia.

At the heart of the issue is the future of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), a species that was only described last year but is already teetering on the brink of extinction. Its habitat in the Batang Toru ecosystem continues to be fragmented by infrastructure projects, including a planned $1.6 billion dam and hydroelectric power plant underwritten by Chinese state loans.

In the latest salvo in the battle, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has filed suit against the North Sumatra provincial government for approving the project. The lawsuit seeks to revoke the government-issued environmental permit for the project’s developer, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE).

The lawsuit’s underlying arguments are that the project carries a high environmental risk, and that NHSE made a series of administrative errors when acquiring the permit, according to Ronald Siahaan, Walhi’s litigation manager.

On the first point, Ronald said, the site of the proposed dam is along a tectonic fault, which raises the risk of catastrophic damage from earthquakes — something that Walhi says was overlooked in the project’s environmental impact assessment document.

Ronald cited the case of a village, Aek Batang Paya, next to the project site, where he said “we can see that the asphalt road there keeps cracking.”

“They’ve paved the road with asphalt over and over again, but the asphalt keeps cracking,” he told Mongabay. “It’s a proof that the spot is at high risk from earthquakes.”

In the environmental permit issued by the North Sumatra administration to NSHE, the province’s governor said the dam would be constructed in such a way that would be able to withstand the impacts of any earthquake.

“Let’s test their logic. Can you name me any construction [project] in Indonesia that can withstand an earthquake?” Ronald said. “Let’s compare that to Japan, which has better experience in earthquake-resistant construction. Even they couldn’t prevent the nuclear plant in Fukushima from being damaged by an earthquake. So how could you say in the document that you will build an earthquake-resistant dam?”

The permit also appears to breach the 2007 national zoning and planning act, which states that construction should be avoided in areas prone to earthquakes, Ronald said.

And the sheer scale of the project, touted to be the biggest power plant in Sumatra once completed as scheduled in 2022, exacerbates the risks, according to Walhi North Sumatra legal division manager Golfrid Siregar. He pointed to the recent collapse of a dam in Laos, in which 36 people were killed and nearly 100 remain missing and presumed dead.

But even before the dam goes into operation, the project will already wreak havoc on the local environment through the clearing of forest for roads and power lines, Ronald said. This will open up once-inaccessible forestland to farmers and hunters.

Ronald, who has twice visited the site of the proposed dam, described the Batang Toru forest as “thick and lush, filled with dense trees with only half-a-meter gaps between the trees.”

Demonstrators from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) hold a banner protesting China’s funding in the Batang Toru dam in front of the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Hans Nicholas Jong for Mongabay.

Blast warning

A senior official at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry told Mongabay-Indonesia that it was important for the project to proceed, as part of the government’s wider plan to boost electricity generation.

“It’s a strategic project, [with] very good impact on agriculture and electricity,” said Wiratno, the ministry’s director general for conservation.

He said he was confident that the project could go ahead with minimal damage to the orangutans’ habitat.

“If possible, they can coexist [with the dam],” he said. “The orangutans there are really tame. We can see that they have nests near the road.”

Still, Wiratno said his office would discuss the matter with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, which sanctions all power plant projects in Indonesia, to assess the impact on the orangutans.

“We will study the impact and everything else with orangutan experts and our research department,” he said.

In addition to the environmental concerns, Walhi’s lawsuit highlights what the group says are administrative violations in the issuance of the project’s permit.

For starters, said Golfrid, there was no proper public consultation by the project managers with the affected communities, which is required by law.

“The local government invited village heads in 2017 [to talk about the project], but we don’t consider that a proper consultation process because the government only talked about compensation and how the project would increase the welfare of the locals,” Golfrid said.

Even then, the amount of compensation offered was too low, Ronald said, at 8,000 rupiah (55 U.S. cents) per square meter of land.

“Where can you find land for 8,000 rupiah per square meter in 2018?” he said. “The answer is Batang Toru. You can find it there.”

Already the project has triggered conflicts with local communities who have refused to sell their land at the price being offered. Last year, a protest by residents from three villages against the development of the dam turned violent.

Golfrid said the locals had little choice in the matter. Even if they refuse to sell out, the government can exercise its powers of eminent domain through the courts, taking their land and force them to accept whatever compensation is offered.

NSHE has denied shirking its responsibilities with regard to the land acquisition process, saying it made an offer of at least four times what the land was worth according to tax-valuation purposes. NSHE also said it had set up a grievance mechanism to resolve any land conflicts.

Ronald said NSHE also failed to inform the locals that blasting operations would be carried out to build the dam. He said they only received notification letters about the blasting a few days before the operations were set to begin. He also objected to the tone of the letters, which he said read more like threats than cautions, which phrases such as “this is a dangerous operation with high risk of injury and death,” and “please do not let your curiosity put yourself or your loved ones in danger!”

“You can’t threaten the locals with death,” he said. “And the locals didn’t even know that the project would involve the use of explosives. Why didn’t they know about it?”

A letter from the developer of the Batang Toru power plant project notifying locals to be cautious of the planned blasting operation. Image by Ronald M Siahaan/Walhi.

After finding out about the letters, Ronald rallied the villagers who objected to the use of explosives, and the blasting operations were postponed.

“I can assure you that the locals were not OK with the blasting operations because the company used the word ‘death,’” he said. “How could you have a business that involves the word ‘death’ in it? What kind of business is that? An environmentally friendly one? One that puts the public interest first?”

In a response to Mongabay’s questions, NSHE said the blasting operations would be conducted by experts in accordance with regulations, and under the monitoring of government officials.

“There’s no bombing plan,” NSHE said. “The blasting operations in question are the use of explosives to create tunnels. And the notification letters were sent in accordance with standard operating procedures before the blasting operations.”

Land cleared as a staging area for the building of a new hydroelectric dam. New orangutan species discovered in Batang Toru, North Sumatra. They are on the brink of extinction due to a hydropower dam project. Contact: Helen Buckland SOS. Picture: Andrew Walmsley

Concerned scientists

Besides filing the lawsuit, Walhi also staged a protest outside the offices of PT Pembangkit Jawa Bali (PJB) Investasi, a subsidiary of state-owned power utility PT PLN that serves as a project sponsor and shareholder in the Batang Toru power plant.

The protest, on Aug. 20, a day after International Orangutan Day, demanded that PJB Investasi, which holds a 25 percent stake in NSHE, to withdraw from the project.

“PJB Investasi as the project sponsor and shareholder of NSHE has to stop the development of the Batang Toru power plant,” Walhi North Sumatra chapter head Dana Tarigan said in a press release. “Meeting the 23 percent renewable energy target in Indonesia’s energy mix by 2025 doesn’t mean destroying an ecosystem rich in biodiversity like Batang Toru.”

Walhi’s lawsuit comes on the heels of an open letter, signed by 25 of the world’s leading environmental scientists, urging Indonesia’s president to scrap the Batang Toru power plant project.

The scientists, writing as the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT), said the project could be the death knell for the Tapanuli orangutan, a species whose population has plummeted by 83 percent over the course of just three generations, 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 orangutan’s habitat is already fragmented into three populations, with only one of them deemed viable in the long term as it houses between 500 and 600 individuals. And that’s assuming no further disturbance or loss of habitat. The populations in the other two blocks are predicted to become extinct because there are simply too few individuals left.

Furthermore, the species breeds slowly, with females not having their first offspring until the age of 15 years, and a space of nine years between pregnancies.

Scientists estimate that an estimated 70 square kilometers (27 square miles) of land will be cleared to make way for the planned dam and reservoir, eating away at the orangutan’s habitat.

Tito Prano, a senior communications adviser at NSHE, said that while the developers indeed had permits to clear that much 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.

Agus Djoko Ismanto, the senior environmental adviser at NSHE, said the company would also create wildlife corridors if the roads happened to cut off smaller populations of the orangutan. As many as 12 such corridors may 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.”

Onrizal Onrizal, a forestry researcher at North Sumatra University, said the creation of wildlife corridors might backfire without proper monitoring, because they could be used by poachers to wait for the apes to cross.

“Judging from our culture, the corridors could be a place for poachers to wait,” he told Mongabay. “And the construction of the dam might make it easier for people to cross the river [and access the ape’s habitat]. Who’s going to monitor them?”

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

PR push

Public pressure against the project is also mounting. An online petition calling on President Joko Widodo to stop the project has garnered more than 1.3 million signatures.

“President Widodo holds the fate of Indonesia’s amazing Tapanuli Orangutan in his hands,” Avaaz global campaigner Mike Baillie said. “If he allows the dam, he will doom these amazing creatures. All over the world, people are calling on him to do the right thing, and save this global icon of Indonesia.”

The ALERT scientists, meanwhile, have flagged NSHE’s decision to use A+, a PR company, to approach them. According to William F. Laurance, the director of ALERT, who led a major study of the Tapanuli orangutan, the PR company has been trying to set up meetings with the scientists who wrote the letter to the president.

“We tried to set up immediate interview with NSHE, but they didn’t want to do it right away,” Laurance, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University in Australia, told Mongabay. “So this is pretty much a smoke screen to try to make it [look] like the company is trying to engage with us. They want to appear that they’re doing the right thing.”

Laurance said the PR company was part of a broader effort by NSHE to pressure and cajole scientists.

“There is a much longer history of them trying to buy influence with money around,” he said. “NSHE offered flights to any of us to Jakarta, all paid expense. But when we tried to push [for the meeting], immediately they said later. So the moment we were contacted by them, we realized what was going on. They tried to divide and conquer us but they didn’t get any traction at all.”

In response to the scientists’ protests, A+ said NSHE was acting out of “good will” when it tried to set up meetings with the scientists.

“The good will is represented by us sending letters to each one of the 25 scientists,” A+ said. “There’s no money being paid or pressure being given to buy influence to the 25 scientists. It’s a shame that our client’s goodwill is being misunderstood and is shared to the public.”

The ALERT scientists said they believed NSHE was afraid that key funders, especially the Bank of China, would withdraw their support for the project following the protests.

Previously, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the Asian Development Bank had refused to support the hydro project, largely on environmental grounds.

But the project received a lifeline when Chinese financiers and Sinohydro, China’s national hydroelectric authority, decided to back it.

“In any other nation, and with any other financiers, it is difficult to imagine a project like this advancing,” ALERT said in a press statement. “But in Indonesia, with abundant Chinese money behind the scenes, who can tell? Prospective financiers such as the Bank of China should run away from this hydro-nightmare and from NSHE — or they will be equally guilty of ringing a death knell for one of our closest living relatives.”


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