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Activists fighting to save orangutan habitat from dam unfazed by legal setback

  • An Indonesian court has ruled that construction of a hydroelectric dam in North Sumatra can proceed despite concerns it will harm the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan.
  • Conservationists plan to appeal, citing “irregularities” in the decision and saying important issues raised during the hearing were not taken into account.
  • The loss of even one or two orangutans per year due to impacts from the hydroelectric project could lead to eventual extinction, experts say.

Environmentalists in Indonesia have vowed to “never stop” in their fight to halt the construction of a hydroelectric project they say threatens the world’s rarest great ape species with extinction, following a legal setback.

An administrative court in North Sumatra province on March 4 rejected a claim by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) that the environmental impact assessment for the 510-megawatt Batang Toru dam was deeply flawed.

The court dismissed Walhi’s case, ruling that the project’s assessments had met all legal requirements and that the testimony of witnesses presented by the group was irrelevant.

Of most immediate concern to conservationists is the impact that the dam’s construction could have on the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), a species only described by science in 2017. Fewer than 800 individuals of the world’s eighth living great ape survive, and only in the Batang Toru ecosystem in North Sumatra.

Conservationists fear the construction of the dam will fragment the remaining Tapanuli orangutan habitat, isolating the apes into three small sub-populations and leaving them vulnerable to human incursions. “Allowing the orangutans to move freely across all areas of the forest to feed and reproduce is essential for the long-term viability of the species,” says the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

The Batang Toru River, the proposed power source for a Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Walhi says the project’s environmental impact assessment document, known locally as an Amdal, only considered the narrow physical footprint of the construction project and not its broader ecological effects. The group also says the Amdal failed to consider the project’s effects on the livelihoods of people living downstream, or the risk of earthquakes, given the dam’s proposed location on top of the Great Sumatran Fault.

“It also completely ignores the fact that it will open up access to the area, allowing more people in,” said Graham Usher, landscape protection specialist for the PanEco Foundation. “From professional and technical point of view, it was very shoddy work.”

Activists from Walhi are now considering on what basis they can appeal. Executive director Dana Tarigan told Mongabay there were “a lot of irregularities in the judge’s verdict.”

Among other issues, Tarigan said the court declined to consider testimony from a witness from a nearby community, while allowing testimony from an individual who had been employed by the developer as a consultant. Allegations that a consulting scientist’s signature was falsified on the Amdal were also not taken into consideration, he said.

But developer PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) said it was now time for all parties to support the project, which it said would bring great benefits in terms of “energy, economy, and environment for North Sumatra, Indonesia and the world facing climate change.”

PT NSHE spokesman Firman Taufick said in a statement: “We invite experts to collaborate with us to make concrete programs to protect the Batang Toru ecosystem, including orangutan conservation.”

Another spokesperson for PT NSHE told Mongabay the company could not comment on the claims of document falsification or the validity of the testimony given by a company consultant because they were the subject of an ongoing police investigation. “NSHE will accept any result from the police investigation,” the spokesperson said.

The company has also repeatedly rejected concerns that the Tapanuli orangutan faces extinction should the dam be built. It says the available habitat within the Batang Toru forest is about 1,400 square kilometers (540 square miles) while the total area being lost to development is 1.2 square kilometers (0.5 square miles) or just 0.09 just percent.

A male orangutan in the Batang Toru ecosystem. Image by Tim Laman via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

But conservationists say the impact on the orangutans will extend far beyond the actual dam and accompanying infrastructure. “Orangutans are extremely suspect to disturbance, they are very slow breeders and the loss of just one or two individuals a year would probably exceed the replacement of the population [by new births],” Usher said. “The loss of any habitat or individuals is extremely worrying.”

Asked what the extinction of the Tapanuli orangutan would signify, Usher said: “It would be a damning indictment of conservation practice and planning in Indonesia and internationally. The culpability would lie not just with Indonesia — there are also the banks that are lending the money. It’s the only great ape in the world that only occurs in one province in one country. It’s quite remarkable in that sense.”

The $1.6 billion Batang Toru hydropower project is being funded in large part by loans from the Bank of China. Walhi has long called on BOC to withdraw from the project.

Activists says there is precedent that gives them hope the dam can still be stopped. Thanks to the sustained action of Wahli in Aceh province between 2004 and 2017, an oil palm plantation planned for the Tripa peat swamp rainforest was eventually defeated, despite being originally upheld at the provincial administrative court level.

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

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