Dam project pushes threatened orangutans from forest to farms

  • Critically endangered Tapanuli orangutans are starting to flee from their only known habitat in Sumatra and encroaching on plantations, as the development of a controversial hydropower project in the Batang Toru forest gets underway.
  • The finding comes just days after the project developer joined forces with the local government and a prominent university to speed up the pace of development ahead of the 2022 deadline.
  • Indonesia’s environment ministry has ordered the developer to revise its environmental impact assessment, but conservationists say there are far too many problems with the project for it to continue.
  • A key risk that remains unaddressed is the proposed dam’s location along a known fault line, which critics of the project say could have disastrous consequences in a region known for its high level of seismic activity.

JAKARTA — A planned hydroelectric dam that threatens the world’s most endangered great ape is already having an impact, days after a ringing endorsement from Indonesian officials and academics.

On Sept. 17, the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry reported that preconstruction activity for the dam and power plant in northern Sumatra had driven a group of Tapanuli orangutans (Pongo tapanuliensis) out of their habitat in the Batang Toru forest. Ministry officials found three orangutan nests located near plantations in the area.

“They escaped to locals’ plantations,” Wiratno, the ministry’s director general for conservation, told Mongabay in Jakarta. “So it’s already proven that the project has already dealt an impact. While there’s no casualty yet, it’s an indication that the project must have had an impact [on the orangutans].”

The ministry has since stationed guards to monitor the movement of the orangutans, a species described only last year but already teetering on the brink of extinction.

The discovery comes less than a week after the Sept. 11 signing of a memorandum of understanding between the project developer, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), and local government and university officials aimed at speeding up the development of the dam.

Conservationists have warned the project will destroy more than a quarter of the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, among other risks that they outlined in a study earlier this year.

However, that’s not a view shared by the leadership of North Sumatra University, which has signed on to provide legal, forestry and environmental expertise for the project.

“This MOU will be followed up by the relevant faculties so that an environmentally friendly hydropower can be achieved soon,” Runtung Sitepu, the university chancellor, said at the signing ceremony. “And hopefully this project can become the supporting foundation for electricity [provision] in North Sumatra and improve people’s livelihoods.”

Gus Irawan Pasaribu, a member of the national parliament whose constituency covers the province of North Sumatra, said at the signing that the MOU was important in helping meet the 2022 deadline for completing the 510-megawatt power plant. Gus, who serves on the parliamentary oversight commission for energy, said the project would save up to 6 trillion rupiah ($395 million) a year from the state budget and address what he called an energy crisis in Sumatra.

The broad support the project has received from officials and academics alike was mocked as “tremendous” by Yuyun Harmono, head of the climate justice campaign at the Indonesia Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s leading green NGO.

“It makes us wonder why all stakeholders at all levels support the project, including academics, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and politicians, both in the parliament and at the local level,” Yuyun told Mongabay. “It seems that the project has become everybody’s business.”

He said the fact the ministry had found apes fleeing from the project site should be reason enough to pause or even end the development.

“Once they found orangutan nests there, they should have stopped the development of the dam immediately,” he said. “Even before the dam is constructed the project has already disturbed the apes. What if the project proceeds with the construction of high-voltage power lines and road expansions? The damage [to the orangutans’ habitat] will be more severe.”

Yuyun also dismissed the ministry’s promise to step up monitoring of the project, saying it was no guarantee against more environmental harm. “Don’t make the excuse that just because there’s been an attempt at monitoring that all the problems are gone,” he said.

Wiratno, the ministry’s conservation chief, said separately that it was “a foregone conclusion” that parts of the Batang Toru forest would have to be cleared for the hydropower project, and faulted the developer for not moving the orangutans out of the affected areas. “If they know there are already orangutans there, they should have moved the orangutans away first before clearing away the forest,” he said.

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

Environmental impact assessment

According to Wiratno, NSHE failed to include the impact of the project on the orangutans in its environmental impact assessment document, known locally as an Amdal.

“Their Amdal didn’t mention the importance of the project’s impact on the orangutans and their habitat,” he said. “They should have [considered the impacts] through to the completion of the dam and its supporting infrastructure.”

He said the company had previously asked orangutan experts to carry out a survey, “but they didn’t include the findings in their Amdal, so they don’t know how to handle the orangutans.”

The ministry has now stationed officers in the area tasked with monitoring the orangutans.

“I’m ensuring that no orangutan falls victim [to the project],” Wiratno said. “That’s why we conduct daily monitoring. We also educate the locals [to not harm the orangutans].”

The ministry has also sent a letter to NSHE ordering it to carry out mitigation measures, starting by revising the Amdal that it had submitted. It has issued another letter calling on the governor of North Sumatra province to ensure the revision is carried out.

“It’s not just a document on environmental impact assessment,” Wiratno said of the Amdal, “but it also serves as a guide for how to carry out the project on the ground.”

NSHE said it had received the ministry’s letter and would revise the project’s environmental impact assessment by adding findings from a separate Environmental, Social and Health Impact Assessment (ESHIA), an internationally recognized standard. The company also told Mongabay it had “voluntarily take[n] measures to mitigate [the impact of the project] in accordance to ESHIA.”

If NSHE complies with the ministry’s demands, and the project is closely monitored, it should be able to proceed without harming the apes, Wiratno said. In fact, he said, it could even serve as an example for future energy projects that face similar challenges.

“This exercise in Batang Toru is important for us to answer this long-standing question that keeps nagging us, which is can development and conservation go hand in hand?” Wiratno said. “This project could serve as a good learning opportunity for us because we have more than 40 hydropower [projects] across Indonesia.”

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

Earthquake risk

Walhi’s Yuyun said any revision of the Amdal would still leave unanswered many of the questions lingering over the project’s impact on local communities and the risk of building a dam along a known tectonic fault.

“How many times do they have to revise the Amdal to address all of the problems?” he said. “If you have to keep revising it, why not just stop the project altogether?”

That’s a view echoed by North Sumatra University engineering lecturer Jaya Arjuna, who has criticized his school’s support for the project. He said NSHE had revised its Amdal three times already, yet it was still “problematic.”

“It’s around 15 centimeters [6 inches] thick now,” he said of the document. “But there are many things that they still haven’t assessed.”

One of the main social concerns over the project is the impact it will have on communities that live along the banks of the Batang Toru River, most of them dependent on the river for water and fish.

Jaya, who has reviewed the Amdal, said that once the dam was in operation, the sluice gates would be closed for 18 hours each day. That would leave downstream communities with just a trickle of the water supply they can currently access. And when the sluice gates are opened, Jaya said, the resulting outflow of water will flood the banks.

“So in the morning, the river will be dried out, and fishermen won’t be able to use the river anymore for fishing,” he said. “And during nighttime, all their farms will be flooded.”

There are also concerns about the risk of an earthquake.

Walhi says the proposed dam lies along a tectonic fault, which raises the risk of catastrophic damage in the event of an earthquakes — a common occurrence in the region, as throughout much of Indonesia. In 2008, a magnitude 6 earthquake struck just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the site of the dam.

Yuyun said this risk was overlooked in the project’s environmental impact assessment.

“It doesn’t answer that concern,” he said. “The fact is that we live in a country that often experiences earthquakes. The recent earthquakes in Palu and Lombok should remind us of such a risk. But it’s not assessed in the document.”

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in Sumatra. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

‘Protected status’

Agus Joko Ismanto, a senior environmental adviser for NSHE, said the company was aware the development would affect the ecosystem.

“Every change must have an impact, that’s inevitable,” he said at a recent event in Bogor, West Java. “If you fry an egg, the pan might burn. But at the same time, you get to enjoy the egg. So there’s always a risk. But after that, we can always mitigate the risk.”

Agus said NSHE had carried out several mitigation measures to reduce the impact the project would have on its surroundings, such as surveying all wildlife in the area before starting construction of the dam. He added the dam itself would occupy 122 hectares (300 acres) of land, about half of which would be flooded.

But while the area occupied by the project might not seem all that large, the dam and its supporting infrastructure will still affect nearby areas, which consist of protected forests and Tapanuli orangutan habitats, according to Dana Prima Tarigan, head of Walhi’s North Sumatra chapter.

“Based on our analysis, it is very likely that the neighboring protected forest will be flooded by the dam,” he said at a recent media briefing in Jakarta. “The company claims they won’t clear a vast area of forest, but the roads they build will isolate the Tapanuli orangutan.”

The carving up of the Batang Toru forest by service roads for the dam has been identified by conservationists as one of the key risks to the orangutans. By splitting the already-disjointed orangutan populations into smaller and smaller pieces, the chances of problems like inbreeding will increase, accelerating the species’ slide toward extinction. The roads will also create openings into previously inaccessible parts of the forest that will be prone to exploitation by farmers and poachers.

While proponents of the project say the Batang Toru dam will be built in an area already designated for development, including energy projects like the hydropower plant, both Dana and Wiratno say the area consists of natural forest — regardless of its zoning status.

“Even though the area’s status has been converted for use for other purposes, the forest cover is still intact,” Wiratno said.

Dana called on the government to change the status of the area to protect it.

“That area should have protected status,” he said. “So why does the government never discuss raising this status to protected and insist on maintaining the current status?”


Banner image: The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in Sumatra. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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