Hydropower project ‘imperils world’s rarest great ape species’

This article has been updated. There are reports that there will be a long-term delay in construction of the Batang Toru power plant.

Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

Conservationists say a 510-megawatt hydropower plant that is being constructed in the Batang Toru forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra threatens to further imperil the world’s rarest and most endangered great ape species.

The company building the power plant – PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (PT NSHE) – says it has sufficient mitigation plans underway and the project’s impact on the Tapanuli orangutans will be minimal. However, a new report states that the plant is unnecessary. An international group of scientists says it could sound the death knell for the Tapanuli orangutans.

Construction for the project is currently halted because of concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) say this is the perfect time to follow its recommendation and conduct an independent, objective environmental assessment “and develop a conservation management plan for the Tapanuli orangutan”.

In a statement issued today, the IUCN experts said: “In its headlong rush to earn a profit and complete the project, PT NSHE is willing to contribute to potentially the first great ape extinction in recorded history and the destruction of Indonesia’s precious natural heritage. We are not.”

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) was only described in November 2017. Fewer than eight hundred of them remain and the IUCN has already declared the species as critically endangered.

The Tapanuli orangutan’s geographic range is just 1,200 square kilometres.

The hydropower plant, which is expected to be operational by August 2022, would flood part of the orangutans’ habitat and the project includes a network of roads and high-voltage transmission lines that would fragment the primates’ habitat. Other endangered species would also be impacted.

The new report, which was produced by the energy consultancy Brown Brothers Energy and Environment (B2E2), states that the project’s infrastructure “will destroy or isolate three out of five habitat blocks”.

Those promoting the hydroelectric project point out that it would flood less than 0.1 percent of orangutan habitat. Those opposing it say the inundation zone is in the area where connectivity needs to be restored between the eastern and western blocks of Tapanuli orangutan habitat.

The new report about the hydropower project was commissioned by several NGOs, including the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth, which is based in Washington, D.C..

It states that the Batang Toru plant is not necessary for meeting energy needs in the region.

North Sumatra used to have an energy deficit, but that is no longer the case, the report states. With eighty new plants due to be built or expanded in the next decade, the Batang Toru power plant is “wholly unnecessary to meet North Sumatra’s electricity demand in the future”, it says.

Proponents of the power plant have also overestimated its value in fighting climate change while ignoring other options, the report states.

The power plant would use the gradient of the Batang Toru River to generate electricity through a diversionary canal and tunnel rather than a single large dam. The purpose of the tunnel would be to build up water pressure over more than a dozen kilometres to spin four turbines.

According to B2E2’s new economic analysis, the hydroelectric project, which is part of China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, is “an unnecessary endeavour”.

PT NSHE has exaggerated both the need for and the benefits of the project, the new report states.

There may have been a rationale for the Batang Toru power plant when it was proposed in 2012, before the identification of the Tapanuli orangutan, and in a very different energy situation, the report states. “But there’s no need for it in 2020.”

PT NSHE says that the Batang Toru plant would reduce Indonesia’s carbon emissions by between 1.6 and 2.2 million tons per year. B2E2 says this estimate is between 33 and 55 percent too high.

The B2E2 report points out that the Batang Toru ecosystem is home not just to the Tapanuli orangutans but also to many other rare and threatened animal and bird species. These include the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), the tapir (Tapirus indicus), and birds such as the Great Argus pheasant (Argusianus argus).

The ecosystem is also home to five other endangered and vulnerable primate species including siamangs (Symphalangus syndactylus) and agile gibbons (Hylobates agilis).

It is one of few areas in the world where three ape species coexist within the same geographical range.

The Batang Toru ecosystem is biologically diverse with more than 310 bird species recorded, along with eighty reptile species, 64 species of frogs and toads, and more than 1,000 tree species.

Sinohydro, which built the mammoth Three Gorges Dam in China, has been awarded the design and construction contract for the Batang Toru hydropower plant, whose cost is estimated at $US 1.6 billion.

B2E2 alleges in its new report that Sinohydro’s record in building dams, and other forms of infrastructure, on three other continents “has been shown to be characterised by sub-standard practices, cost overruns and, at times, outright fraud and corruption”.

In the case of the Batang Toru project, PT NSHE says that Sinohydro’s work is being monitored by a French company to ensure that its performance is in compliance with the requested standards.

The PT NSHE project is reported to still have the backing of the China Export and Credit Insurance Corp, a state-owned enterprise also known as Sinosure.

Land cleared as a staging area for the Batang Toru power plant. Photo by Andrew Walmsley.

Mighty Earth points out that there is a geothermal energy plant in Batang Toru that could be further expanded to provide more clean electricity than the new hydropower plant ever would.

According to official data, North Sumatra province, where the power plant is being built, already has one of the highest electrification rates in Indonesia. Nearly 96 percent of the population had basic and stable access to electricity in 2016.

The new B2E2 report says that there were rolling power blackouts in past years in North Sumatra province, but they have diminished since 2017.

“The blackouts appear to have been caused by a combination of inadequate generation and deficiencies in the transmission/distribution grid, both of which have been or are being resolved,” the report states.

Inadequate generation has now been remedied, the report says. “The availability of electricity began to surpass peak demand in 2017. This new surplus has significantly reduced the number of blackouts in the province.”

PT NSHE contends that the Batang Toru power plant will ease Indonesia’s balance of payments deficit by rendering the import of diesel less necessary.

The new B2E2 report says there is no evidence that it will replace diesel power plants and it is far likelier that it would displace gas-fired power plants, which can be built for one third of the price, and which, given that they burn domestically-produced gas, would have a positive balance of payments impact.

According to B2E2, the high capital costs of building the Batang Toru power plant “will lead to the outflow of dollars from Indonesia and into the bank accounts of the Chinese contractor that will build the plant, as well as the Chinese holding company that owns the majority of the plant, all to the detriment of Indonesia’s balance of payments”.

Activist dies in suspicious circumstances

Last October, 240 civil society organisations urged the Indonesian authorities to investigate the “extremely suspicious” death of an Indonesian environmental lawyer who opposed the building of the Batang Toru power plant.

Golfrid Siregar, who worked as the legal manager at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) in North Sumatra, was found on the side of a road in Medan, Sumatra, on October 3 and died three days later. Siregar was found “beaten and abandoned”, the organisations state.

In a letter that was sent to several Indonesian embassies, the organisations state that, while the police claim that Siregar’s death was the result of a traffic accident, “there are a number of irregularities and suspicious circumstances which suggest his death may have occurred as retaliation for his environmental and human rights advocacy work, thus warranting immediate further investigation”.

Siregar’s motorcycle was not damaged and did not have any asphalt marks. His legs and hands did not have any of the cuts or wounds that are usual in traffic accidents. His wallet and other personal effects were missing.

Golfrid Siregar

Siregar was involved in a lawsuit brought by WALHI against PT NSHE, in which it is claimed that the company violated at least three Indonesian laws. He was also involved in exposing an expert’s forged signature in the project’s AMDAL (environmental impact assessment).

Siregar also filed a complaint with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) with regard to alleged potential embezzlement and corruption involving PT NSHE and local government.

The organisations state in their letter: “Scientific experts have been fired for speaking out against the project; local environmental organisers report harassment, intimidation, and being followed by company hired men.”

Also, the Indonesian expert who testified that his signature was forged in the AMDAL for the Batang Toru hydroelectricity project has been accused of defamation, the organisations added

The expert who testifies that his signature was forged is Onrizal Onrizal a forestry researcher at North Sumatra University, who, in 2013, was asked to help draft the AMDAL by PT Global Inter Sistem (GIS), a company hired by PT NSHE to conduct the environmental impact assessment.

Onrizal says that his name and diploma were used without his permission in a final version of the environmental assessment, which failed to mention eight endangered species found in the Batang Toru forest, including the Tapanuli orangutans, the Sumatran tiger, the sun bear, and the Sumatran lar gibbon. The initial version of the AMDAL listed 23 species while the final one cites only 15.

Police in Medan refused to investigate the falsification of Onrizal’s signature, so Onrizal and Siregar took the complaint to police in the capital, Jakarta.

PT NSHE says that any dispute relating to the contents of the AMDAL document concerns GIS.

In February last year, Siregar told the environmental news website Mongabay that, if Onrizal hadn’t signed off on the final AMDAL, that would render the document invalid. Given that the document was used by the provincial government as the basis for granting the environmental permit, then the permit itself would also be invalid, Siregar said.

NSHE has commissioned a new AMDAL, which is currently being finalised.

‘Death knell for the species’

An international group, the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT), has issued numerous statements about the fate of the Tapanuli orangutans and the dangers of the hydroelectricity project.

The project could be a death knell for the species, ALERT says, as it will slice across the most critical area of population connectivity for the ape.

“Orangutans are so sensitive to population losses that the mortality of just 1 percent of the population per year could drive the species extinct,” ALERT said.

ALERT says that PT NSHE has been pushing hard to convince investors that the hydropower plant will be “green” and can be developed in a way that won’t hurt the Tapanuli, but scientists “have demolished many of their key arguments”.

Professor William Laurance from James Cook University in Australia said in July 2018 that the hydropower project was being widely condemned in Indonesia and internationally.

“In response, PT NSHE is pressuring and cajoling scientists, throwing money around to buy influence, making false statements, and now has hired a public relations firm specialising in corporate crisis management,” he said.

Laurance said PT NSHE’s tactics were “simply deplorable”.

Indonesian scientists Jito Sugardjito, Barita Oloan Manullang, and Rondang Siregar produced a study for PT NSHE and have all spoken out in favour of the hydropower project. Sugardjito and Manullang were spokespersons for the company at the COP25 climate conference in Madrid last December.

Serge Wich from the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s Section on Great Apes (SGA) said: “Jito and Barita are both ecologists, and both have worked with orangutans, so they lend credibility to what the company is saying.”

PT NSHE’s main spokeswoman and the senior adviser to the company’s chairman, Anton Sugiono, is Emmy Hafild, who is a former director of WALHI, and the former executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Hafild was also at COP25.

Under Indonesian law, all NGOs with a permanent presence in Indonesia need an MoU to carry out field work with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. If NGOs are considered to be going against the government, they risk losing the right to continue their conservation work.

The MoU that covered WWF’s forest conservation work was terminated by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2019. It had been due to run until 2023.

The ministry’s official reason for ending its partnership with WWF was that WWF Indonesia violated the terms of the agreement. The ministry said that WWF had been working on issues beyond those defined in the MoU and was working in some locations without permission and without reporting this the ministry.

Serge Wich says the role of NGOs is to provide an independent voice “and whether they collaborate with the government or have MoU’s with the government should not influence that”.

PanEco makes dramatic turnaround

For several years, the NGO PanEco, which is based in Switzerland, was highly critical of PT NSHE’s hydropower project, but it made a very controversial about-face in August last year. It signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with PT NSHE and is now cooperating on what it says are “concrete mitigation actions”.

PanEco said in a statement about the MoU that PT NSHE and PanEco had “agreed to end their differences and enter a new partnership with a comprehensive long-term perspective, to safeguard the entire Batang Toru ecosystem and a future for the Tapanuli orangutan”.

The MoU, PanEco said, was fully endorsed by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Directorate-General for Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems.

Pan Eco and PT NSHE said they would be engaging with other stakeholders in the region, including the local governments, the private sector, and the Working Group on Sustainable Management of the Batang Toru Landscape, which is a group of Indonesian NGOs and local communities coordinated by the Bogor Agricultural Institute.

PT NSHE, PanEco, and the Indonesian government said they were committed to the
following measures:

  • building habitat corridors “to reconnect the already fragmented population of
    Tapanuli orangutans”,
  • maintaining connectivity in areas where orangutan populations are at risk of being fragmented by disturbance caused by construction or maintenance of the hydropower plant,
  • restoring disturbed or destroyed forests to their former condition,
  • halting encroachment and forest loss within the company’s exploration zone and beyond,
  • adopting a zero-tolerance policy and strategy for law enforcement against anyone hunting, killing, harassing or otherwise disturbing orangutans and other species within the PLTA exploration zone and beyond, and
  • raising the protected status of currently unprotected forests within the Batang Toru ecosystem.

The founder and president of PanEco, Regina Frey, said the collaboration between the NGO and PT NSHE offered “an opportunity to develop model solutions for future conflicts between economics and nature conservation elsewhere in the world”.

The CEO of Mighty Earth, Glenn Hurowitz, has accused PanEco of greenwashing and says that, according to PT NSHE’s own Environmental Impact Statement, the hydropower project is planned for a place “with almost three times the density of Tapanuli orangutans than the average in the Batang Toru ecosystem”.

Hurowitz believes that PanEco capitulated to bullying and intimidation by PT NSHE. “It’s a disgrace,” Hurowitz said. PanEco, he says, should have made a report to the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) and the Indonesian police.

“The Indonesian and Swiss authorities should investigate this dirty deal and hold PT NSHE accountable for its actions,” Hurowitz said.

“PanEco’s decision to accept the deal offered by PT NSHE should prompt further investigation since PanEco suddenly altered its approach under pressure.”

Wich says that PanEco’s turnaround amounts to a “moral sellout”. He added: “The NGO decided to be pragmatic and not walk the moral high ground. By doing that, I think they’ve set a terrible precedent.

“I can understand an organisation that is under outside pressure deciding not to oppose the hydroelectric project anymore, but to sign an MoU and work with the company constructing the power plant, that’s a complete U-turn and sends out all the wrong signals.”

“These are dark days for Indonesian conservation at large.”

Previously, PanEco stated on its website that the Batang Toru hydropower project was “the greatest threat to the long-term future of the Tapanuli orangutan”.

The organisation added at that time that the power plant was planned “in an area with the highest density of orangutans and highest biodiversity values of the whole ecosystem”. Some 10 percent of the Tapanuli orangutans resided in the area, PanEco said.

The NGO said then that construction of the power plant and the related infrastructure, powerlines and associated land speculation would cause “severe fragmentation of the rainforest and isolation of sub-populations of the Tapanuli orangutan, making them prone to extinction”.

This statement has now been removed from PanEco’s website. The NGO now lists the threats to the Tapanuli orangutans and the Batang Toru ecosystem as only gold mining, logging, encroachment, and poaching.

One of PanEco’s main projects, which it set up in partnership with the Foundation for Sustainable Ecosystems (YEL) and the Indonesian Nature Conservation Authority, is the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

The SOCP runs a medical quarantine facility north of Medan, conducts an education and awareness-raising programme aimed at getting the conservation message across to the general public, works to protect orangutan habitat, and is creating an Orangutan Haven for orangutans that cannot be released back into the wild.

Photo by Andrew Walmsley.

Regina Frey, told Changing Times: “Going against the hydropower project, which provides jobs and ensures the livelihood of the local communities, obviously has a disquieting impact. Moreover, by campaigning against the project, PanEco violated its MoU with the government, which explicitly forbids any political activity.”

Frey says she sincerely believes that the hydropower project is not endangering the Tapanuli orangutans’ survival. “There are other factors that are far more fatal and which we might be able to control thanks to the new strategy and with PT NSHE as a strong partner,” she said.

“I’m convinced that we are doing the right thing and I cannot believe that others cannot see this.”

Frey says that the PanEco HQ in Switzerland failed to interfere in time to avoid the violation of the organisation’s MoU with the government “and failed to assess the enormous potential of a cooperation with PT NSH”.

She says the cooperation with PT NSHE enables PanEco to fight jointly against the other threats to the Tapanuli orangutans that she says are more destructive; to protect the whole Batang Toru ecosystem “beyond the relatively small area impacted by the hydropower project”.

Frey says PanEco has not been bullied or intimidated by PT NSHE or by Emmy Hafild. Hafild, Frey says, is an old friend who foresaw the negative consequences of PanEco opposing the hydropower project and had a comprehensive understanding of the whole situation.

Frey doesn’t think the hydropower project should be halted so that an independent study can be carried out.

“The project represents a minor impact, which can be mitigated. There’s a highway cutting through the habitat, palm oil development on thousands of hectares, encroachment by surrounding communities, and a gold mine with a large exploration concession already now operating and poisoning communities and the ecosystem,” she said.

PanEco, she says, has a very good record and has been active in conservation for a couple of decades “and myself for more than 40 years”.

It is, she says, “very upsetting that there’s so little trust among conservationists”.

The expert on orangutans and PanEco board member Professor Carel van Schaik says that even without the new hydropower project and with fewer than eight hundred Tapanuli orangutans remaining, in an already highly fragmented population, “the prospects for the species’ survival looks bleak”.

He added: “With the government of Indonesia and now PT NSHE on their side, there is enormous potential for a major new conservation strategy that will ensure their protection, and that of their entire Batang Toru ecosystem habitat, long into the future.”

Frey says the departure of two of PanEco’s staff – Gabriella Fredriksson and Graham Usher – was “by mutual consent” because the two “found it too difficult to embark on the new strategy with full conviction”. Fredriksson says the two were sacked.

Fredriksson and Usher were two of the authors of a commentary on the hydropower project that was published in April 2019 in the journal Conservation Science and Practice and said the project was a threat to the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan.

Usher, Fredriksson, and Singleton were reported to the police by local people for campaigning against the hydropower project, and were accused of causing civil unrest.

Activists outside of Indonesia are still able to campaign against the PT NSHE project, but, for those inside the country who oppose it, dissension has become difficult and dangerous. There are fears that the collaboration between PanEco and PT NSHE creates a troubling precedent; that, in the future, other companies will threaten detractors and obtain their support through intimidation.

Land cleared for the Batang Toru power plant.

Power plant would put the Tapanuli orangutans ‘on a much firmer path to extinction’

PT NSHE argues that the site of the power plant is in an APL (land for other uses) area. In the case of APL, land is not legally considered official forest, regardless of whether or not it has forest cover.

“The key point is whether there are orangutans, irrespective of the land use class,” Wich said. “In this case we know that orangutans occur in this area.

“If it is orangutan habitat then these orangutans shouldn’t be disturbed. The logical conclusion would then be that you can’t disturb the habitat either.”

“Constructing and operating this proposed power plant would certainly put the Tapanuli orangutans on a much firmer path to extinction.”

Wich, who is a professor at Liverpool John Moores University in Britain, says that the consensus from independent scientists is that the hydroelectricity project is bound to negatively impact orangutan habitat.

If those in favour of the project disagree with those objecting to it, they should come up with science to back up their argument, Wich says.

“It’s fine to disagree, but then come up with an analysis that shows that what the scientists have been reporting is not correct, and that there are methods to carry out mitigation.

“There are no studies that indicate that their infrastructure will not impact orangutan movements.”

Wich says that a river stretch of about two and a half kilometres will become the project’s reservoir. “That means that it’s going to be very wide, so that orangutans would have no chance to cross that anymore.”

If the project goes ahead, only a small area north of the inundation zone would provide possible improved connectivity between the eastern and western blocks, and this would only be possible if the inundation zone doesn’t end up being bigger than predicted, Wich says.

Those in favour of the project say there is currently no connectivity between the eastern and western blocks because there is a road.

“Who knows whether orangutans are sometimes crossing,” Wich said. “We just don’t know. We know that orangutans can sometimes pass through local community gardens.

“They can sometimes pass through small stretches of oil palm, so to be so adamant that there’s no dispersal at all anymore strikes me as very unscientific.”

If those promoting the project are so sure that there is currently no connectivity, they should prove this with a proper scientific study, Wich says. “They should look at the genetics of the orangutans in the east and the west.”

The IUCN is calling for an independent assessment, Wich says, so that there can be a proper scientific debate about the potential effects of the project.

PT NSHE says bridges will be built to facilitate orangutan connectivity, but Wich says this is a ludicrous idea.

“We’ve never experimented with orangutan bridges,” Wich said. “In Sabah, they’ve used fire hoses over very narrow rivers and, after several years, orangutans sometimes use these. We know that there are differences between the orangutans on Sumatra and Borneo so to assume that orangutans on Sumatra would use similar bridges is dangerous.

“In addition, those bridges are over very narrow stretches of water where the canopy almost touches.”

In Ketambe, a research site in Aceh, Sumatra, where Wich has worked, a cable was placed over the river. It was very frequently used by macaques, Wich says. However, as far as he knows, in the thirty years that it was there, it was never used by orangutans.

“To experiment with bridges for a species that’s almost extinct seems completely ludicrous to me,” Wich said.

It’s something, Wich says, that could perhaps be done with Bornean orangutans or Sumatran orangutans in a test setting where it’s not really impacting them. To take such a gamble with the Tapanuli orangutans is too risky, Wich says.

Wich describes the turnaround by PanEco as a “very disappointing sell-out”.

Photo by Andrew Walmsley.

PT NSHE vaunts a 2018 survey led by Yanto Santosa from IPB University, which showed that more than 50 percent of orangutan nests in PT NSHE’s concession had been abandoned.

Wich dismisses this finding as irrelevant. “Orangutans build a nest every night and then they leave that nest,” he said. “That’s totally normal. That is exactly what you would expect. It would be extremely odd if you didn’t find any abandoned nests.”

To use abandoned nests as an argument in favour of the hydropower project clearly shows that those making the argument have no understanding of what orangutans do “or that they do understand what orangutans do, but are just deliberately providing misinformation”.

Both scenarios are “terrifying”, Wich says.

PT NSHE also claims that there are a small number of orangutans in the area where the power plant is to be built, and have even cited a specific number (17).

It’s not possible to make such an exact calculation, Wich says, and even if it were 17 “that’s still a fair number”, he says.

“And by law they should be protected and not disturbed. Even if it was only one, if you have to follow Indonesian law, which personally I think they should, they can’t disturb animals.”

Wich says that it could perhaps be possible, with perfect management, to maintain a population of about 500 to 600 Tapanuli orangutans, but this would be very, very tricky.

Mountain gorillas, Wich says, have made a comeback in Africa over the past two decades, but only through “extreme conservation”: by employing huge resources, having veterinary teams on call day and night, and by having guards against poachers.

“That’s of course only happening because of the huge income to Rwanda and other countries from tourism; 1,500 dollars an hour to watch a mountain gorilla.”

There is nothing similar happening in Batang Toru, Wich says. “We don’t see a massive input from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry or other Indonesian agencies to protect these orangutans.

“They’re still being wounded in gardens; they’re probably still being killed. The one orangutan that became the holotype for the species paper was wounded and eventually died because of human-orangutan conflict.

“This is happening all the time. We see the orangutan numbers decrease so there’s very little hope, if you further reduce the population size and have all these other things happening, that this will bode well.”

Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya, has previously expressed concern about the need for PT NSHE to protect the Tapanuli orangutans. She sent a letter to the company requesting that it produce an addendum to the project’s AMDAL, which she said did not comprehensively address the protection of the orangutans.

The minister asked the company to ensure that real efforts were in place to protect the Tapanuli orangutans from the effects of construction of the power plant.

Foresthints.news reported that on-the-ground monitoring by the environment and forestry ministry had provided evidence that direct corrective actions were needed during every phase of construction.

The ministry’s own monitoring provided evidence that orangutans were being displaced by the construction.

Three two-day-old Tapanuli orangutan nests were discovered in community plantations and this indicated that the project development had fragmented the primates’ habitat and isolated them.

The ministry’s Director-General of Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation, Wiratno, said in September 2018 that PT NSHE should invest to ensure that its hydropower project did not uproot any more Tapanuli orangutans.

Ministry of Environment and Forestry photos, which indicate the fragmentation of the Tapanuli orangutans’ habitat.

Wich says that, if PT NSHE is serious about its mitigation efforts, it should halt operations and allow time for an independent assessment that can then be presented to the ICUN for its recommendations.

“If the company is confident that its mitigation efforts would work, why are they so worried?” Wich said. “Why not agree to an independent assessment?”

PanEco and PT NSHE vaunt their mitigation plans.

PT NSHE and PanEco recently held a workshop in Medan about conservation of the Tapanuli orangutan and its habitat, at which scientists talked about mitigation efforts.

A total 34 “participants” were listed, but many of the listed organisations declined to attend.

Three of the listed “participants” – Helen Buckland, who is the director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society; Serge Wich; and Erik Meijaard, the Dutch conservationist who was the first scientist to discover the Tapanuli orangutan in the wild – wrote a letter explaining why they would not take part in the workshop.

“Whilst we welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue regarding the conservation of the Tapanuli orangutan, we consider that a prerequisite of any such dialogue must be a genuine commitment by NSHE to adhere to robust and independent scientific recommendations,” the three wrote.

“Several invitees have therefore declined to participate until such time as a moratorium is announced on the development of PLTA Batang Toru.

“Such a moratorium should be in place until an independent study can be conducted into the impacts of the hydroelectric project and associated infrastructure on the Tapanuli orangutan while all developments associated with the project are halted.”

Conducting research on orangutans while disturbances are taking place cannot generate baseline insights into the population dynamics of the three subpopulations of Pongo tapanuliensis, and therefore cannot be bases for determining mitigation or avoidance measures, the three wrote.

The three said they supported the IUCN SGA statement, in which the SGA calls for a moratorium on development in the Tapanuli orangutan’s range.

The IUCN SGA has proposed that its executive committee leads an independent study to determine the implications for the Tapanuli orangutan of the various threats to orangutans occurring in the APL area, and whether or not those threats can be mitigated.

The SGA has urged the Indonesian government to engage in a dialogue to initiate such a study as a collaboration between the IUCN SGA, relevant Indonesian government agencies, and other relevant parties.

“Further activities in the APL area should only be considered once the results of study have been fully reviewed,” the SGA said.

The SGA also appealed to PT NSHE “to immediately halt this development to enable the careful assessment by the IUCN SGA of the impacts of the project, together with appropriate recommendations”.

The group added: “It is necessary to suspend this development because the study may recommend changes to the project design that would reduce negative impacts on the orangutans or may even suggest a relocation of the energy plant to another site or to a different energy source if the impacts cannot be mitigated.”

Buckland, Wich, and Meijaard requested that other listed “participants” consider declining the invitation to participate in the Medan workshop.

“It is important to demonstrate to NSHE that there is broad support for a halt to developments in the Batang Toru landscape whilst independent studies are conducted and robust recommendations formulated, ideally overseen by the IUCN SGA.”

The three said that the inclusion of the organisations listed as attendees in the invitation letter gave a false impression of endorsement of the workshop and participation in the consultation.

Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

At the workshop, the director of the SOCP, Ian Singleton, said that the hydropower project would not have a big impact and that most of the land that would be cleared or had already been cleared could be restored.

If there was mitigation, the physical impact on the Tapanuli orangutans could be minimal, Singleton said.

Singleton said that the threat of the orangutans’ migration path between blocks being cut off could be overcome by creating crossings and avoiding constructing roads that are too wide.

PanEco and PT NSHE produced a joint statement after the workshop stating that, with their mitigation efforts, “the impacts of the company will be minimal, and its activities will not lead to the extinction of the Tapanuli orangutan”.

In the statement, which was signed by Emmy Hafild, Ian Singleton, and Jito Sugardjito from the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Resources Management (CSERM) at the Universitas Nasional (UNAS), PT NSHE and PanEco say that, for the long-term viability of the Tapanuli orangutan, “there is a critical need to maintain and increase habitat connectivity and to reduce habitat loss, hunting, and human-orangutan conflict throughout the entire Batang Toru ecosystem”.

PT NSHE and PanEco say the construction of the Batang Toru power plant is an opportunity to be seized to strengthen the protection and connectivity of the Tapanuli orangutans “and ensure their survival long into the future”.

They call on all stakeholders “with an influence in the region” to come together to mitigate the range of threats that face the Tapanuli orangutans.

They urge stakeholders from the private sector, government, and the local community to help increase connectivity between the western and eastern blocks and from the western bloc to the Sibual-buali Nature Reserve.

“We also highlight the need for increased monitoring efforts to reduce deforestation and hunting, and to minimise human-orangutan conflicts,” Hafild, Singleton, and Sugardjito said.

“We see opportunities for upgrading currently unprotected Tapanuli orangutan habitat to protected status and for upgrading already protected forests to even higher levels of protection.

“Opportunities exist too for restoring and rehabilitating previously damaged or degraded forests. There is also a need to initiate community livelihood programmes and develop new sustainable livelihood initiatives, tied to conservation goals and activities, to create win-win situations for both communities and the Tapanuli orangutan alike.”

Serge Wich says it would make much more sense for the government, PanEco, and local communities to collaborate on constructing corridors and on forest restoration without the power plant being built; without additional concerns being created for a species that is already on the brink.

“It would be hard enough then to do this, but, with the power plant, it would be even harder because a lot more uncertainty is thrown into the mix.

“How will orangutans react to the disturbance? How fast will they use restored areas? Will they move below the power lines? Will they cross the road? Will they use bridges?” he said.

At the Medan workshop scientists presented the results of a recent study by the CSERM.

The study is an analysis of the biodiversity and orangutan population living within and adjacent to the PT NSHE’s 1,812-hectare “Area of Influence” (AOI).

The study concluded that the habitat loss that occurred between 2017 and 2019 totalled 371.68 hectares, of which 86.47 hectares is permanent loss that should be offset and 285.21 hectares is temporary loss that will be restored.

PT NSHE says that the location of the company’s AOI will not impact the potential for a future habitat corridor linking the eastern Batang Toru forest block to the western block.

The east and west orangutan populations “are almost certainly already separated by the trans- Sumatra highway and the Batang Toru river”, the company says.

“We seek the support of government, local communities, and other stakeholders to ensure a habitat corridor is maintained, and strengthened, to maintain gene flow between the orangutan population in the Dolok Sibual-buali Nature Reserve and the west population, across the wider landscape and the company’s AOI itself.”

The CSERM survey results confirm that there are orangutans and orangutan habitat throughout the AOL.

According to the CSERM researchers, the estimated orangutan density in the AOI is about 0.32 individuals per km2, “which equates to an average of around six orangutans using the AOI at any given point in time”.

Given the large, overlapping home ranges of orangutans, however, the total number of individual orangutans that use NSHE’s AOI is almost certainly more than six individuals, PT NSHE admits.

“Exactly how many individual orangutans use the area, however, and how frequently they use it, requires further study,” Hafild, Singleton, and Sugardjito said in their statement. “We strongly support the continued study and monitoring of the orangutan population in the area of NSHE and their efforts to mitigate their direct and indirect impacts on all orangutans using their AOI.”

The three cite the following mitigation efforts:

  • maintaining intact forests,
  • restoring cleared forest areas,
  • restricting public access,
  • implementing SMART patrols,
  • building wildlife crossing structures,
  • use of road-crossing signs,
  • creating offset areas for permanent habitat loss,
  • ensuring that orangutans can freely cross beneath the power-line infrastructure proposed within the AOI, and
  • awareness-raising and conservation education for the population surrounding the PT NSHE project area.

Regina Frey told Changing Times: “The CSERM study is being questioned because it has been financed by PT NSHE, but there’s no such thing as an independent study. Every study needs funding, and the funds come from somewhere.

“The integrity of a study, of science, is always dependent on the individual scientist’s ethics. The Indonesian scientists who have been directing this study, are not only scientists but passionate conservationists. Distrust is not justified.”

Wich says it is problematic that the CSERM research was not carried out by independent scientists. All the research being presented by PT NSHE has either been financed by the company or is being done by researchers who are working under an MoU with PT NSHE, he says.

Helen Buckland agrees. For a study to be truly credible in this context, she says, it needs to be carried out by scientists who are not under pressure from actors with vested interests who want the results to support a certain outcome.

“It needs independent oversight and interpretation of the results, and the IUCN SGA seems perfectly placed to do this.”

Individuals or organisations that have contractual arrangements with PT NSHE are clearly not independent, and have conflicts of interest, Buckland says.

“At the heart of such studies must lie the precautionary principle, and a genuine willingness, on all sides, for the results to be incorporated going forward – whether that involves project redesign, relocation, or cancellation.

“Funding for such a study would be readily available from any number of independent sources that do not have a vested interest in the outcomes, beyond robust conservation planning for the Tapanuli orangutan based on scientific evidence.”

Funding, Buckland says, is not the hurdle. “It is the willingness to halt project operations until such time as some fundamental questions have been answered. As construction has currently halted due to the coronavirus outbreak, now seems like a perfect opportunity to set the wheels in motion for such studies to get underway.”

The deputy vice-chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group Section on Great Apes, Rebecca Kormos; Serge Wich; Erik Meijaard; and William Laurance said in their statement today that PT NSHE’s claims that mitigation measures can offset the power plant’s impact are old excuses that it has resurrected in its latest attempt “to defend the indefensible”.

They asked: “Will small protected areas and a few rope bridges really counteract the destruction caused by a massive industrial project in the middle of the Tapanuli orangutan’s home?”

This, the IUCN experts say, is what the company wants people to believe, “but the truth is that we do not know”.

They added: “We cannot know which, if any, mitigation measures will work without further study. And with the survival of the species hanging in the balance, such an independent assessment led by the IUCN is crucial.”

Scientists appeal to Indonesian president

In July 2018, 25 environmental scientists and economists representing every major region of the world wrote to the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, urging him to halt the hydro-energy project.

They called for a halt to developments “in the last remaining habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan” and urged the government to recommit all remaining habitat for the orangutan to a status “that provides effective protection and management, including clear demarcation of the forest, patrolling, and anti-poaching efforts”.

They asked for urgent steps to be taken to reconnect the remaining habitat blocks via forest corridors and for the Tapanuli orangutan to be listed as a high-profile protected species on the Indonesian protected species list.

ALERT says that, with help from a public relations firm, PT NSHE is pushing a particularly disingenuous argument: “that traditional wisdom from local communities will protect the orangutan”.

This argument, ALERT says, is “false and baseless” – so much so, that it even inspired a satire by Erik Meijaard.

The principle of incorporating local wisdom may sound charming, the ALERT scientists say, but it falls apart on close inspection.

“No amount of local wisdom will prevent destruction of the orangutan’s habitat,” they said.

“The principle reason that Tapanuli orangutan still survives in the highlands of Batang Toru because it is rugged and inaccessible to hunters, loggers, and land-clearing farmers and agribusiness corporations.

“Relying on presumed traditional and sacred respect for orangutans is a cynical distortion of reality, and will not save the Tapanuli orangutan.”

Crucially, the ALERT scientists say, the Tapanuli orangutan has an extremely low rate of reproduction, with females only giving birth to a single young once every six to eight years, and then only after the age of 15. The species is therefore intensely vulnerable to mortality, the scientists say.

“Moreover, the species is strictly arboreal, living only in trees and never down coming to ground. Even a small forest clearing, such as a road without overhead canopy connections, could disrupt and isolate its population.”

The hydropower project would also destroy the major river that runs through the heart of the Tapanuli orangutans’ habitat, the ALERT scientists say.

“The river’s water will be diverted and only a trickle of its original flow will be maintained.

“This river destruction will kill the fish and aquatic life that rely on the river and sustain local fisheries, and will allow the river itself to become a ‘corridor of death’ by permitting poachers and encroachers to hike into the heart of the orangutan’s habitat along the dry riverbed.”

The habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, fires, poaching, and other threats from the hydro project and its secondary impacts could be utterly devastating to the Tapanuli orangutan, the ALERT scientists say, and many other rare species, including the endangered Sumatran tiger, would be harmed by the project and its aftermath.

The project has one of the lowest benefit-to-cost ratios of any planned hydro-energy project in the world, the ALERT scientists say.

Also, they say, the area where the power plant would be located is intensely active geologically and carries a high risk of earthquakes that could potentially cause catastrophic project failure and downstream flooding.

“Local communities downstream of the Batang Toru project have expressed repeated concerns about the potential impact of the project on their water supply, water quality, flood risk, and fisheries.”

WALHI says the power plant would impact the livelihoods of farmers downstream as it would arrest the flow of the river for 18 hours a day.

International protests

Opponents of the hydropower project say that collaboration with PT NSHE is not the only option for conservation NGOs. They say international pressure can be exerted on potential funders. Activists have been lobbying the Bank of China to persuade it to definitively refuse to finance the power plant.

The Ape Alliance organised a petition that was signed by 120,000 people, and there have been protests outside branches of the Bank of China in numerous cities including Jakarta, New York, London, Hong Kong, Manila, and Johannesburg.

Mighty Earth’s petition to the Bank of China and Sinohydro has garnered nearly 216,000 signatures.

More than 356,000 people have meanwhile signed a petition organised by Rainforest Rescue that is addressed to the Chinese and Indonesian presidents and the CEOs of Sinohydro and Indonesia’s state-owned electricity company PT PLN.

PT NSHE has failed to get funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank.

In light of concerns about the plight of the Tapanuli orangutans, the Bank of China reconsidered its decision to fund the power plant and agreed to meet concerned NGOs. The bank has not yet made an official statement about its final decision, but it now seems highly unlikely that it will back the project.

A protest in March last year outside the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel in London. Demonstrators urged the multinational corporation Jardine Matheson, which owns the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain, to help stop the power plant project. Jardines owns the Martabe gold mine in Sumatra via its mining company United Tractors and United Tractors’ subsidiary PT Danusa Tambang Nusantara.

‘Constructing roads would bring in settlers and hunters’

The Tapanuli orangutans’ habitat consists of five blocks. There are two main blocks (east and west); an area in the Sibual-buali Nature Reserve, located next to the western block, where there is a third, smaller population; a block in the PT NSHE’s  “Area of Influence” with an estimated 42 orangutans; and a “corridor” block where there are thought to be just six Tapanuli orangutans.

Erik Meijaard, who is one of the 37 co-authors of a paper about the Tapanuli orangutans, has said that constructing roads through the orangutans’ habitat would bring in settlers and hunters.

Co-author Serge Wich said: “If more than 1 percent of the population is lost annually this will spiral them to extinction.”

Meijaard says he discovered the population of orangutans south of Lake Toba in 1997, but it took twenty years to compile the data that shows that the Tapanuli orangutan is a distinct species.

The scientists’ genome analyses revealed that the deepest split in the evolutionary history of extant orangutans – between the Batang Toru population and those living to the north of Lake Toba – occurred about three million years ago.

The Bornean and Sumatran orangutan species separated much later – about 674,000 years ago.

The Tapanuli orangutans have thicker, frizzier hair than their Bornean and Sumatran relatives, and, unlike the Bornean orangutans, the females grow beards.

The dominant males have a prominent moustache and flat flanges covered in downy hair, whereas the flanges of older males are more like those of Bornean males.

The Tapanuli orangutan is similar to the Sumatran orangutan in its linear body build and has a more cinnamon-coloured pelage than that of its Bornean relative.

Scientists say the Tapanuli orangutan is more closely related to the Bornean orangutan, whose home is on an island more than one thousand kilometres away, than it is to other orangutans in Sumatra, who live further north on that island.

The discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan, which is named after the area in which it lives, was the first time since 1929 that a new member of the great ape family had been identified.

Wich says the hydropower plant’s infrastructure will impact the movement of orangutans and make efforts to improve connectivity between the east and western blocks more difficult. “It will basically cut off the Sibual-buali area from the western block,” he said.

Wich says that if the project goes ahead the impact on the Tapanuli orangutans will likely be very severe.

“You basically cut off in all likelihood the Sibual-buali orangutans, so that’s about 24 orangutans, and then you would probably not be able to improve connectivity between the east and west so you cut off about 160 more orangutans in the east.”

Overall. Wich says, there would therefore be about 186 orangutans who would be cut off from the orangutans in the western block.

“So, you reduce the population by a large number, and then this western block population, which is already fairly small, becomes even smaller, and there’s still hunting occurring in that area, and there’s still forest loss.

“That is a very worrying situation for a species that’s then essentially confined to one very small area.”

Helen Buckland said: “Conservationists would be delighted if it turned out that the hydro project would not have any adverse effects on the Tapanuli orangutan, or if we could have confidence that all impacts could be mitigated.

“As these scenarios have not yet been evidenced, then the precautionary principle must be applied. We are, after all, talking about the survival of the world’s most endangered species of great ape.

“There is too much at stake to put profits ahead of protection.”


Changing Times has contacted PT NSHE and Global Inter Sistem for responses to specific questions, but has not received a reply from either company.

Update 2/5/2020

The IUCN’s Primate Specialist Group Section on Great Apes (SGA) has published a new fact-check report about the Tapanuli orangutan and the Batang Toru hydroelectric project.

The authors of the report state that several significant claims found in NSHE publications or press releases are “inaccurate or misleading”. They say that they have found multiple cases of statements made in “public-facing NSHE documents” that conflict with findings in the NSHE’s own impact assessment reports and current scientific knowledge.

“These include several assertions about the use of the project area by the Tapanuli orangutan as well as wider environmental impacts on orangutans, forest areas and aquatic habitats,” the authors state.

Numerous claims in NSHE publications, or directly attributed to NSHE staff in media articles, are found to conflict with findings in peer-reviewed literature and technical reports, or with the observations of established experts in relevant fields, the authors state.

“Some of these relate to the most controversial aspects of the project such as its impact on the Tapanuli orangutan and the ecology of the Batang Toru river, the demand for the power that the plant would produce, and the project’s compliance with international investment standards.”

The authors say that claims about the demand for the energy produced by the power plant and the greenhouse gas emissions benefits have been found to be questionable.

“In addition to this, the requirements of the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard 6 have not been met,” they add.

The report’s authors say that engagement with the IUCN Section on Great Apes and a robust study into the impacts of the project on the Tapanuli orangutan are urgently required.

“This review therefore supports the position of the IUCN SGA that the project should announce an immediate halt to all project activities on the ground while a full investigation of the impacts on the orangutan population is carried out.”

Update 21/7/2020

According to a report on the website Mongabay, environmental, funding, and pandemic-related concerns may delay the construction of the Batang Toru power plant for up to three years.

Hans Nicholas Jong quoted Muhammad Ikhsan Asaad, who oversees the project for the state-owned electricity company PT PLN, as saying the project may be delayed until 2025.

Citing a report on the Dunia Energi website, Jong quoted Muhammad Ikhsan Asaad as saying the Batang Toru plant was supposed to start operating in 2022, based on the agreement between PT PLN and PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (PT NSHE).

According to the Dunia Energi report, Muhammad Ikhsan Asaad added: “It might be delayed to 2025, mainly because the drawdown from lender Bank of China is stopped due to environmental concerns as well as Covid-19.”

In construction, a drawdown refers to a situation in which a company receives part of the funding necessary to complete a project, and the rest of the funding may be disbursed gradually over the course of the project, Jong explained.

According to Rio Indrawan, reporting for Dunia Energi, the managing director of PT PLN, Zulkifli Zaini, said that environmental issues, and concerns about wildlife, were among the reasons why the project might be delayed..

Jong reports that work on the hydropower plant has been on hold since January after construction workers from the contractor Sinohydro, who had gone home for the Lunar New Year holiday, were barred entry back into Indonesia because of Covid-19.

According to Jong, PT NSHE has submitted a request to PT PLN, as the buyer of the plant’s power, to push the start of the plant’s operation to 2025, but the utility company said a decision hadn’t been made yet.

Sources have told Changing Times that the Bank of China has confirmed that it will not fund the power plant project, but the bank has not made an official statement to this effect.

In its statement on March 4, 2019, the bank said it took note of the concerns expressed by some environmental organisations about the power plant project.

The bank said at that time: “We attach great importance to corporate social responsibility in our global operations and ensure that our business activities abide by local laws and regulations. We are committed to supporting environmental protection globally and upholding the principles of green finance.”


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