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Indonesian gold mine expanding in ‘wrong direction’ into orangutan habitat

Two Tapanuli orangutans in Batang Toru forest, North Sumatra, Indonesia, in September 2018. Image courtesy of Prayugo Utomo/Wikimedia Commons.

  • A gold mine in the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan is expanding, prompting alarm from activists and conservationists.
  • The Martabe mine on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, run by a company associated with the U.K.’s Jardine Matheson Holdings, already cleared 100 hectares (about 250 acres) of forest from 2016 to 2020, and looks set to clear another 100 hectares.
  • Advocacy group Mighty Earth says the expansion will impact an area recently established to help protect the orangutan and other threatened species.
  • Jardines says an independent forestry and sustainability assessment concluded that the long-term impact of the planned exploration and development work was minimal.

JAKARTA — Activists and scientists have condemned a British conglomerate’s decision to resume gold exploration in Indonesia’s Batang Toru forest, saying it threatens the world’s most endangered great ape, the Tapanuli orangutan.

Jardine Matheson Holdings controls the Indonesian conglomerate Astra International, whose subsidiary Agincourt Resources operates the Martabe gold mine in northern Sumatra. The mine is located in the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). Identified as its own species in 2017, fewer than 800 of the great apes remain in the wild.

Location of the Martabe gold mine in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

The Martabe gold mine’s operation resulted in the clearing of 100 hectares (about 250 acres) of forest from 2016 to 2020.

In 2019, Jardines issued a commitment to not expand farther into Tapanuli orangutan habitat, following a campaign by U.S.-based advocacy group Mighty Earth. But in 2021, Mighty Earth detected 13 hectares (32 acres) of forest loss within the mining concession, and in 2022, another 15 hectares (37 acres).

The clearing stopped recently after the company scrapped its plan to build a second waste facility for the gold mine, and changed the location of planned exploration sites.

However, Agincourt recently announced it would press ahead with exploration of a new site north of the current mine, covering around 1 hectare (2.5 acres).

Agincourt called the exploration “an essential stage of development to advance understanding of mineral deposits and viability of the area prior to making a decision on whether to proceed with future development.”

The new site is located in an area called Tor Ulu Ala (TUA), which has been recognized by conservation group Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) as a key biodiversity area. KBAs are defined as holding “a significant proportion of the global population size of a species facing a high risk of extinction, and so contribute to the global persistence of biodiversity at genetic and species levels.” AZE sites, in turn, are a subset of KBAs that require the most urgent need of conservation to prevent the imminent extinction of the site’s key species, in TUA’s case the Tapanuli orangutan.

This raises the question of why Agincourt has directed its new exploration to be done in the TUA area and not another part of its 130,252-hectare (321,860-acre) concession, said Amanda Hurowitz, the senior director for Asia at Mighty Earth.

“By going north, Jardines’ Martabe gold mine is expanding in the wrong direction,” she said in a press statement. “It plans to start operations inside an AZE area, recently established to help protect the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan and other threatened species.”

The Tapanuli orangutan has lost 95% of its historical habitat due to hunting, conflict killing and agriculture. Those threats persist today and are compounded by mining, infrastructure projects and the development of geothermal and hydroelectric plants. That leaves the orangutan facing a much greater risk of extinction than previously thought, and at the current rates at which its habitat is being lost and the ape is being hunted, the extinction of the Tapanuli orangutan is inevitable, researchers say.

The ARRC Task Force, a unit of the Primate Specialist Group under the global wildlife conservation authority the IUCN, had previously recommended that Jardines avoid the northern part of the Martabe concession as it overlaps with the AZE site. The task force worked with Agincourt for a year in 2022 on efforts to mitigate impacts on the Tapanuli orangutan, during which it suggested the company assess the feasibility of expanding the mine to the south rather than north toward the TUA site.

“Therefore, we are urging Agincourt to immediately carry out the ARRC-IUCN [task force’s] recommendation,” said Andi Muttaqien, executive director of Indonesian environmental and human rights advocacy group Satya Bumi.

The Martabe gold mine’s footprint in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Jardines.

What’s the potential impact?

In response to the concerns raised, Agincourt said the new phase of exploration was designed to be as low impact as possible on the surrounding environment, including limiting the drilling area to 1 hectare from the previously planned 3.1 hectares (7.7 acres).

Agincourt said the plan had been approved by a team of orangutan and conservation experts it hired, called the Biodiversity Advisory Panel (BAP). Agincourt formed the panel in 2020, and says it doesn’t intervene in the BAP’s work and that panel members work independently to identify, map and mitigate risks to biodiversity at Martabe.

The ARRC Task Force, however, said it doesn’t consider the BAP to be independent due to the fact that its members are paid by the miner, creating a conflict of interest. The panel members also self-review the data they collect, the task force pointed out.

Panel member Rondang Siregar, from the University of Indonesia, said there seemed to be a common misunderstanding that Agincourt was blindly expanding its operations and thus threatening the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan.

“After we had a dialogue [with Agincourt], that’s not entirely true. The area and time period of mining are limited,” she told Mongabay. “Agincourt has tried and is trying wholeheartedly to carry out its mining activities in line with sustainability principles, particularly on minimizing and mitigating the risk on biodiversity. What Agincourt is doing is beyond what’s required by the law and the BAP really appreciates this.”

Rondang said the BAP had studied the TUA area to assess its viability to be explored, and found that the plan by Agincourt in general wouldn’t threaten the orangutans “due to the experience and procedure that Agincourt has” and also the limited clearing.

The proposed activities are also largely confined to spots that were previously developed or explored; 13 of the 16 spots within the 1-hectare exploration site have been explored in the past, said BAP member Onrizal, from the University of North Sumatra. He added the TUA area is home to degraded secondary forest.

Agincourt also commissioned an independent forestry and sustainability consultancy firm to assess the concession using satellite imagery. The assessment concluded that the long-term impact of the planned exploration and development work was minimal, Jardines said.

Mighty Earth, however, said this conclusion only applied to the proposed exploration work in the TUA area, and not the impact on high carbon stock (HCS) forests in most of the KBA areas adjacent to the mine, according to a large-scale indicative HCS forest map of Indonesia published in 2021 by Swiss research institute ETH Zurich’s EcoVision Lab.

“Hence, this statement does not apply to the long-term impact of Agincourt’s expansion plans on HCS forest inside and outside the KBA,” Mighty Earth said.

The Martabe gold mine in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Mighty Earth.

Limited impact?

Andi of Satya Bumi said he doubted the exploration will be limited to the 1-hectare area designated by Agincourt. Mighty Earth campaign director Phil Aikman added that developing a new mining pit in the TUA area would likely have an environmental impact well beyond the 1-hectare footprint as it might involve building an access road from the existing pit in Ramba Joring to the TUA site.

“The further development of the Ramba Joring pit, the building of the access road to TUA pit, and the development of TUA pit will require a lot of infrastructure and blasting,” Aikman told Mongabay.

Mighty Earth also noted that the 1-hectare figure is the total area of all the drilling sites within the 30 hectares (74 acres) of the TUA site. That means the entire 30 hectares could be impacted by the drilling and the subsequent fragmentation due to infrastructure development, Mighty Earth said.

Rondang said logistical activities for the exploration will use helicopters instead of an access road, in an effort to mitigate the impact. Agincourt also said the exploration area is located outside protected forest area.

But just because the area isn’t formally protected doesn’t mean it’s not important for biodiversity and the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan, Aikman said.

“The statement is just using the term ‘protected area’ to make themselves sounds as though they don’t do illegally activities in protected areas. It’s just PR language!” he said.

Jardines said that while “the existence of a KBA does not prohibit the existence of a mine within its boundaries,” it recommended following “best practice in relation to environmental stewardship.” It added that “Martabe has in place industry-leading biodiversity practices and rehabilitation procedures.”

Jardines also noted that the KBA boundary had been revised in January 2023, in which part of Agincourt’s operational area was included. It said the KBA Secretariat made the change without consultation with Agincourt or other stakeholders impacted by the decision.

“We have reached out to the KBA Secretariat to find out why the boundary was changed, and we are committed to open dialogue with them on how we can continue to protect this important area,” Jardines said.

Andrew J. Plumptre, the head of the KBA Secretariat, said the secretariat doesn’t change boundaries.

“We evaluate proposals for new or re-assessed KBAs and if the criteria are met we approve the KBA,” he told Mongabay. “A proposal was made to modify the boundary by people in Indonesia because they wanted the full extent of habitat where the Tapanuli Orangutan lives incorporated in the KBA because forest that was excluded was of lower altitude and deemed more important for the ape.”

Plumptre added that the KBA status of the ecosystem doesn’t preclude activity by the private sector.

“But we do encourage that they aim to create net positive impact for the species or ecosystems that trigger KBA status where they have impacts,” he said.

Responding to the ARRC Task Force’s call for the mine’s operator to explore to the south instead of the north, Jardines said the gold deposits south of Martabe are close to a residential area with a fairly dense population.

“So the likelihood of negative community impact is unacceptably high,” Jardines said. “In addition, these areas do not fall within the government approved [environmental impact assessment] boundary and have not passed the government feasibility test.”

Agincourt’s last two annual reports show that the company has been exploring multiple areas south of the Martabe area.

A Tapanuli orangutan in Batang Toru forest, North Sumatra, Indonesia, in April 2022. Image cortesy of Dimasmhd/Wikimedia Commons.

Rehabilitation and clearing

Agincourt also has a rehabilitation plan that’s progressive, according to Rondang, the science panel member commissioned by Jardines. It’s also another reason why the panel endorsed the exploration plan, she added.

Onrizal said the panel had recommended Agincourt plant native tree species, particularly those that are rare and serve as food sources for the Tapanuli orangutan, as part of the rehabilitation process.

With respect to the new areas planned for exploration, Jardines said these would be rehabilitated immediately after exploration through planting of local trees grown at the mine’s nursery, to allow the forest to “return as quickly and as naturally as possible.”

Besides the new explorations, Agincourt also has a plan to build a new facility for its dry mining waste, or tailings, covering 78 hectares (193 acres) for the existing mine. The new tailings facility is needed because the existing wet tailings storage facility is nearing capacity, Agincourt said. An additional 20 hectares (49 acres) will be cleared “mostly in the immediate surrounding perimeters of the existing mining pits” to ensure proper slope stability and effective mine drainage.

This means that Agincourt plans to clear nearly 100 hectares of land, including secondary forest.

The location of the new tailings facility has also raised concern, as it sits adjacent to the TUA, Mighty Earth said.

“It is difficult to see how the integrity of this orangutan population can be maintained, if Agincourt goes ahead with developing the TUA pit to the immediate east of [the new tailings facility],” Mighty Earth said.

Dutch biologist Erik Meijaard, part of the team that in 2017 described the Tapanuli orangutan as a new-to-science species, said the survival of the great ape is at stake.

“Everyone who cares about wildlife and biodiversity conservation should strongly object to any further losses of the habitat of Tapanuli orangutan, especially considering that the species has only about 5% left of its historic range,” he said. “There is a lot of gold in the world but there is only one place which has this species.”


Banner image: Two Tapanuli orangutans in Batang Toru forest, North Sumatra, Indonesia, in September 2018. Image courtesy of Prayugo Utomo/Wikimedia Commons.


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