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Study warns of dire ecological, social fallout from Sumatran dam

A Sumatran orangutan relaxing in a tree.

  • A new study warns that the environmental impact of a planned hydroelectric plant in Sumatra’s unique Leuser Ecosystem will be much greater than initially thought.
  • The area is the last place on Earth that’s home to wild tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants — all critically endangered species whose habitat would be flooded and fragmented by the dam and its roads and power lines, activists say.
  • They also warn of the dam exacerbating disaster risks to local communities, in a region already prone to flooding, landslides and earthquakes.
  • Activists are mulling a lawsuit to void the project permit, but the developer says it has done everything by the book and that the new study is based on an outdated environmental impact analysis.

JAKARTA — The last place on Earth that’s home to wild tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants may lose these and countless other species to make way for a $3 billion hydropower project.

That’s the warning from a new study looking at the potential impact of the plant on the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, an ecological hotspot and one of the world’s largest remaining expanses of pristine tropical rainforest.

The 428-megawatt Tampur dam and power plant is still in pre-construction phase, with several feasibility studies having been carried out. Its environmental impact assessment, or Amdal, calls for flooding 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of land in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Activists say this will wreak havoc on the ecosystem and local livelihoods. But the affected area could be much greater than that, according to a new spatial analysis carried out by the Sustainable Ecosystem Foundation (YEL), an NGO.

The analysis shows the project’s ecological impact stretching to more than 300 square kilometers (116 square miles) of forest, two-thirds of it untouched by human activity. That’s because in addition to the dam, the project will also require infrastructure such as buildings, roads and power lines, which will cut through the Leuser Ecosystem, says YEL spatial analyst Riswan Zein.

Four-fifths of the dam’s reservoir will occupy what is currently primary forest, along with nearly the entire length of the road network, Riswan said.

“All these will destroy the ecosystem’s remaining forest, whether located in the flooded area or along the route of the power lines,” he said.

Aerial view of Lesten Village in Gayo Lues regency, the planned site of the Tampur Dam. Photo by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Wildlife habitat

YEL’s findings come from overlaying the map of the project onto a map of existing forest in the ecosystem. The potentially affected area consists largely of protected land, including primary forest.

Under Indonesian law, protected forests are typically set aside for purposes like watershed management and erosion control, but permits for development projects within these areas may be granted by officials. (Protected forests differ from conservation forests, which are strictly off-limits to any kind of development and usually found inside national parks.)

Primary forest, meanwhile, is used to designate natural forest with no clearly visible indications of human activity, and therefore with intact tree cover.

“Most of the dam will eat away at Leuser’s production forest and protected forest,” Riswan said.

The affected area is the only known habitat of four of Indonesia’s most iconic and threatened species: Sumatran tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants, all of which are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to high rates of habitat loss and fragmentation as well as killing.

“If the forest is cleared then these animals’ habitats will be destroyed,” Riswan said, adding that the location of the project was particularly important for elephants.

“We see elephants there very frequently. The Tampur region is the only corridor for the elephants to go from the northern part of the ecosystem to the south. So if the corridor is cut, then it will also impact the genetic line of the Sumatran elephants,” he said, warning of “fatal consequences” for the species.

The Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh province. The area contains Mount Leuser National Park. Image by Agungdwinurcahya/Wikimedia Commons

Environmental impact assessment

The planned dam and power plant will straddle the border region between the districts of Aceh Tamiang, Gayo Lues and East Aceh, in the province of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra. The project developer is PT Kamirzu, the Indonesian subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Prosperity International Holding (HK) Limited.

Environmental activists have launched an online petition calling on the Aceh provincial government to halt the project, and also plan to challenge the developers’ permit in court.

Dedi Setiadi, Kamirzu’s project manager, refuted YEL’s statements about the potential scale of the dam’s impact on the environment. He said the spatial analysis conducted by the NGO was based on an earlier version of the company’s environmental impact assessment.

“What they analyzed was an Amdal document that wasn’t approved, it was a draft,” he told Mongabay.

The revised and approved Amdal, Dedi said, included the company’s assessments about the environmental impact that the project might cause, and addressed all of them.

For instance, he said, the company had taken into account a map of known species habitats provided by the Aceh wildlife conservation agency. “We’ve overlaid the location of our dam’s flooding area with the map of elephant and orangutan habitats and found that we’re outside their habitat,” Dedi said. “I’ve been working on the site of the project for two years now and I haven’t seen any endangered species once.”

YEL’s Riswan said separately that Kamirzu should have published the approved Amdal if it had nothing to hide. “Where’s the final document?” he said. “It’s difficult to get hold of it.”

Asked why Kamirzu had not released the approved Amdal to NGOs for scrutiny, Dedi said the company was not obliged to do so, though it has shared it with the relevant government agencies.

A Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), one of the Leuser’s iconic species. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Disaster risk

Opposition to the project has stemmed not just from its potential impact on local wildlife, but also on the risk of catastrophic damage from landslides and earthquakes — natural disasters that are relatively common in the region.

YEL’s study shows that most of the project and its infrastructure will be located in areas that are prone to erosion, including almost the entire dam. The topography of the region features steep slopes, with 87 percent of the proposed roads of the project cutting through areas with a grade of more than 50 percent. Heavy rains or earthquakes could easily trigger landslides, Riswan said.

“The land is very fragile. Many landslides occur naturally [there]. And now they want to manipulate the land [to build the power plant],” he said.

The project site also lies in a region east of a tectonic fault line called the Great Sumatran Fault, which runs the entire length of the island and making it a highly prone to seismic activity.

Dedi said Kamirzu had studied the risk of earthquakes but did not include the findings in its Amdal. He said the locally sourced rocks to be used to build the dam would make it strong enough to withstand earthquakes.

He also said the project site was more than 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the fault line. “And in our construction planning, we’re using a technology that can withstand earthquakes up to 3.9 in magnitude,” he said.

Riswan said several earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 6 had occurred in the area around the project site in the past. He added that even if it didn’t sit right atop the primary fault line, it was still located near secondary fault lines.

“So the risk is still there,” he said. “But I appreciate the company for admitting that they didn’t include the earthquake risk assessment into the Amdal document. They should have done that but they didn’t.”

Dedi said the project’s earthquake risk still had to be assessed by the Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing. Construction can only begin after it passes the ministry’s certification, which Dedi called the developer’s biggest challenge.

Flooding is another risk that critics say the construction of the dam will exacerbate. The project site lies in a region that experiences more than 2,300 millimeters (91 inches) of annual rainfall — twice the amount of rain that falls in Portland, Oregon.

In 2006, heavy downpours triggered a flash flood in Aceh Tamiang district, killing 28 people and displacing more than 200,000 from their homes. Damming the river could make similar flooding events upstream even more destructive, activists say.

Dedi said Kamirzu had monitoring devices in place to check rainfall and fluctuations in the river flow. “We’re analyzing the data every month to plan our construction because we really want to be safe,” he said.

But Riswan said the monitoring efforts were insufficient without measures to mitigate the risk of flooding. “There’s no mention in the Amdal of what the company will do during heavy rain and how they will address soil erosion,” he said. “If they say they installed rainfall monitoring devices, then that’s not preventive measures, that’s just monitoring.”

Maksum, an Aceh Tamiang resident who lost his fish-cracker factory and saw his home submerged in the 2006 flood, said the provincial government should reconsider allowing the Tampur project to go ahead.

“If the government proceeds, it means the governor of Aceh is killing the people of Aceh Tamiang,” he said. “We’re just waiting for the dam to collapse. We haven’t even fully recovered from the 2006 flash flood.”

Maksum initiated the petition calling on the governor to scrap the project. To date, it has collected more than 60,000 signatures.

Red and pink ginger flower in Mount Leuser National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Lawsuit in the works

Activists are also fighting the project through legal avenues. A lawsuit is in the works that seeks to declare null and void the forest conversion permit issued in June last year by the Aceh governor at the time, Zaini Abdullah, as one of his last acts in office.

M. Fahmi, a member of the legal team at Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HaKA), a local NGO, said Zaini had no authority to issue such a permit. Under a 2016 ministerial guideline on forest conversion and the 2014 regulation on vesting authority to governors, a forest conversion permit may only be issued by the minister of environment and forestry upon request from a company.

In certain cases, specifically for building non-commercial public facilities such as roads, cemeteries or houses of worship, the regulations allow a governor to issue a forest conversion permit. Even then, the size of the area for conversion is capped at 5 hectares (12 acres); the reservoir for the Tampur power plant is 800 times larger.

Crucially, Fahmi said, the project is a commercial development, and thus should have obtained its permit from the minister, not the governor.

“So based on these two national regulations, it’s clear that the governor overstepped his authority by issuing the forest conversion permit,” Fahmi said.

Dedi said no regulations were violated in the obtaining of the permit, citing the special autonomy enjoyed by the government of Aceh.

This autonomy is best known for allowing the local government to impose partial sharia law in the staunchly Islamic province. A lesser-known aspect of it, however, is a 2016 bylaw on forestry, which Dedi said gave the governor full authority to issue the necessary forest conversion permit.

Dedi said Kamirzu had subsequently asked the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to approve the permit issued by Zaini, which it did.

But HAkA’s Fahmi took issue with the sequence of events. According to the NGO, the governor issued the forest conversion permit in June 2017 — before the administration of the new governor, Irwandi Yusuf, signed a memorandum of understanding with Kamirzu’s Hong Kong parent company, Prosperity International.

“This is strange. The MOU should have been signed first, before the governor issued the permit,” Fahmi said. He called on the developer to publish the letter from the forestry ministry approving of the permit issued by the governor.

Fahmi also questioned the need for the power plant, saying the 2016 forestry bylaw under which the permit was issued covered only developments of an urgent nature.

“Aceh has enough electricity,” he said. Peak electricity demand in the province is 496 megawatts, while total generating capacity is 601 megawatts, Fahmi said, citing data from the state-owned power utility, PLN. “That means there’s already an excess of electricity and there’s no electricity shortage that calls for building a new power plant,” he said.

Activists hold posters to protest against the development of Tampur dam during a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Permit points

Another criticism of Kamirzu’s permit is that it remains unclear whether the developer has finished mapping the affected forest area.

Under the terms of the permit, the company has a year from its issuance to complete the mapping, said Muhammad Reza Maulana, a member of P2LH, a coalition of environmental lawyers opposed to the project.

Reza said local government officials were unaware of whether the mapping had been completed by the June 2018 deadline.

Dedi said Kamirzu had fulfilled all its obligations as laid out in the permit, including the mapping. He said the provincial forestry agency had also approved the results of the mapping.

HAkA’s Fahmi said he doubted this. He said his organization had asked the forest gazettement agency in Aceh about the status of the forest mapping and they referred HAkA to the provincial forestry agency instead.

“That means Kamirzu hasn’t coordinated the mapping effort with the forest gazettement agency,” he said. “So we can conclude they haven’t done the mapping.”

The permit also obliges the developer to relocate residents from the village of Lesten, where the dam’s reservoir will sit.

Dedi said Kamirzu had drawn up plans to move the villagers, but was awaiting a decision by local authorities on where to move them. “Basically the villagers have agreed to be relocated. But we’re not the ones who will decide where they will go. The Gayo Lues district head has established a team to scout new locations and to inform the villagers about them,” he said.

“But the villagers still haven’t been relocated,” Reza said. Fahmi said having a relocation plan wasn’t the same as doing the actual relocating, as required by the permit.

Failure to fulfill any part of the terms of the permit, Reza said, would render the permit null and void.

“When the company didn’t fulfill its obligations, the provincial investment board should have given the company a warning, but they didn’t do that,” Reza said. “There’s been no attempt by the government to evaluate [the company’s adherence to] the permit.”

Fahmi said HAkA was awaiting a responses from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry before proceeding with filing a lawsuit to challenge the permit.

“We’ve sent a letter to the ministry for clarification on whether they’re aware that the former governor of Aceh issued a permit that he wasn’t supposed to,” he said. “We haven’t gotten a reply yet. So we’re still waiting for a response from the ministry.”

Reza said P2LH needed to study all the material relating to the project before bringing a case to court.

“We will launch legal action if we still find forest clearing or heavy equipment” operating at the site before construction is allowed to begin, he said.

Rainforest in the Gunung Leuser ecosystem. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Economy or environment

Dedi said critics of the Tampur project failed to see the benefits of the 2016 forestry bylaw, which made it easier for companies like Kamirzu to invest in Aceh. He said the Tampur case had set a precedent for the Aceh government to issue forest conversion permits for four other infrastructure projects, including a toll road.

“Aceh has been given the authority to issue permits, so why would you want to reverse that [progress]?” he said. “The investment process will take longer” if that authority is revoked, he said.

He also pointed to the long-term benefits of the Tampur project for the people of Aceh.

“After we build the dam, we can use the water in the reservoir to irrigate local plantations, for fish farms, and to develop tourism,” Dedi said. “But they don’t see that. They can only criticize a single [Amdal] document.”

YEL’s Riswan, though, said proponents of the project failed to see the uniqueness and ecological importance of the Leuser Ecosystem. He cited a 2016 study that identified at least 12 environmental functions served by the ecosystem, such as maintaining a regular water supply for local communities.

The Leuser Ecosystem accounts for half of the forested area in Aceh. The value of the ecosystem services obtained from maintaining it would amount to billions of dollars over the long term, Riswan said.

“These are the functions that we have to see to make sure that we’re not blinded by temporary [economic] benefit,” he said.

“All 26,000 square kilometers [10,000 square miles] of the Leuser Ecosystem are unique. Don’t treat it the same way as other areas.”

Banner image: A Sumatran orangutan relaxing in a tree. A new study warns that the environmental impact of a planned hydroelectric plant in Sumatra’s unique Leuser Ecosystem will be much greater than initially thought, threatening the critically-endangered Sumatran orangutans who live there. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.