By Ahmad Syamsudin
A $1.6-billion hydroelectric power plant being built by China in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province will divide the habitat of the world’s rarest great ape, increasing the risk of the critically endangered primate’s extinction, scientists and environmentalists said.
PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), an independent power producer in which China’s ZheFu Holding owns a majority stake, is building the 510-megawatt hydropower dam in the Batang Toru rainforest of Sumatra.
The power plant could stabilize electric supply in the northern part of the island, officials said.
But the project – part of Beijing’s One Belt, One Road grand plan – could split the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, underscoring how China’s global infrastructure drive can threaten the environment, scientists and conservationists told BenarNews.
“The development will significantly increase the likelihood of extinction of Pongo tapanuliensis,” said Erik Meijaard, director of conservation at Borneo Futures and professor at the Center of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland, using the scientific name of the orangutans.
Meijaard said construction would destroy some of the most critical low-altitude habitats of the orangutans, cutting the connection between the eastern and western block of the habitat.
“So instead of one connected population there will be two smaller populations,” Meijaard, who is one of the scientists who carried out initial research on the Tapanuli orangutan, told BenarNews.
Small populations have a higher chance of extinction than large ones, he said.
The Batang Toru Ecosystem is the only known home to an 800-strong Tapanuli orangutan, which was discovered in 1939, identified as a distinct species last year and recently listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But NSHE denied that the project would threaten the habitats of protected animals.
It said the plant would only cover an area of 122 hectares (301 acres), or only 0.07 percent of the Batang Toru Ecosystem.
“The company freed 669 hectares, all of which were bought from local people. At the end of the construction, the remaining unused land of 400 hectares will be replanted with trees that could be sources of food for wild animals,” said Agus Djoko Ismanto, a representative at NSHE.
A small part of the project area is the home range of up to seven orangutans, he said.
“The company has been monitoring wild animals since before the land clearing, including the existence of protected species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers and pangolins,” Agus told Benar.
“Our finding shows that the project location is not the main habitat of orangutans. Their habitat is in the forest at 600 meters above the sea level,” he said.
Conservationists predict that the project will have an immediate impact on 10 percent of the orangutan’s dwindling habitat.
The project is backed by the China Export & Credit Insurance Corporation, also known as Sinosure, a major Chinese state-owned enterprise, and the Bank of China. Beijing-based Sinohydro hydropower engineering company has been awarded the contract to build the plant.
Like building a Berlin Wall
According to Meijaard, while the company claims that only a small amount of forest will be lost, the area is where some of the highest densities of the orangutans were found before project activities started.
“Any road developments into forest areas in Indonesia lead to encroachment, increased hunting and poaching, people settling along the road et cetera. These indirect impacts will be much more than the direct ones,” he said.
Dividing the orangutan population into two would be “a bit like building a Berlin Wall through the middle of Jakarta, with no one able to cross from the north to south of the city or vice versa,” he said.
Twenty-five members of the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers (ALERT) sent a letter to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in July, urging him to stop further developments in the orangutan habitat.
“An action of this nature would bring you the enduring gratitude of many Indonesians and overseas citizens eager to see global conservation leaders emerging in our increasingly self-interested world, at a time when leaders of many other nations seem to have lost sight of the importance of a healthy environment for our citizens and children,” the letter said.
The power plant is one of the priority projects under the Jokowi government’s drive to upgrade the country’s dilapidated infrastructure.
But the project has attracted criticism from environmentalists worldwide, as China’s aims to link Beijing with Asia, Europe and Africa by building massive highways, railways, ports and other infrastructure under its One Belt, One Road initiative.
“I think this crystallizes, in a way that people can understand, what a tsunami of 7,000-plus projects will mean for nature,” professor Bill Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University in Australia, told AFP news service. “This issue is becoming in some ways the face of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.”
Agung Pribadi, a spokesman for the Energy and Mineral Resources, defended the building of the hydroelectric plant, scheduled to be competed in four years.
“NSHE has conducted an environment, social and health impact assessment, including a study on the population of orangutans, which has been approved by the lender,” Agung told BenarNews.
“We expect the Batang Toru plant to strengthen electricity supply in the northern part of Sumatra. This plant produces renewable energy,” he said.
Agung said small-scale protests against the project had been linked to land compensation, employment opportunities and the possible impact on the environment.
“The majority of the local population supports the project. Only a small number of people still have negative views,” he said.
Yuyun Indradi, a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told BenarNews that the controversy over the power plant highlighted problems with China-funded projects in Indonesia.
“China has been investing in dirty energy, including coal-fired powered plants in Java, Bali and Sumatra,” he said.
Greenpeace said the Celukan Bawang coal-fired power station in Bali, a $700-million project built by China Huadian Corporation, was “poisoning” the resort island.
The project has been riddled with problems, such as inadequate land compensation and the impoverishment and health issues it is causing, Yuyun said.
In August, a court threw out a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace and local people against the Bali governor and the company, ruling that the local government’s decision to issue a permit for the project was lawful.
The plaintiffs have brought the case to the State Administrative Court but a decision is still pending, Yuyun said.
“The government at every level has ignored the socio-economic, environmental and health impact caused by the Celukan Bawang power plant. The local people have been left to fend for themselves,” he said.