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Jakarta Post

Scientists slam govt for giving nod to Batang Toru dam

  • Kharishar Kahfi and Evi Mariani

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, November 13, 2018   /   07:53 am
Scientists slam govt for giving nod to Batang Toru dam This handout picture from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) taken on Aug. 20 shows an aerial view of land cleared as a staging area for the building of a new hydroelectric dam in the Batang Toru rainforest, the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, on Sumatra Island. (SUMATRAN ORANGUTAN CONSERVATION PROGRAMME/AFP/Nanang Sujana)

Scientists have slammed the Indonesian government for giving the controversial Batang Toru hydroelectric power plant the green light, saying that orangutans are valuable to Indonesia, like pandas are to China.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said the government believed that the dam would have little impact on the Tapanuli orangutans, the rarest great ape on earth, which environmentalists call the last 800 due to its small number.

The scientists said Indonesia risked its global reputation if it does not protect them.

Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia said the great apes -- orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas – have always piqued the interest of the global public. “The last 800 are Indonesia’s responsibility.”

The dam, located in the Batang Toru Ecosystem in South Tapanuli regency, North Sumatra, has faced protests from biologists and environmentalists because it could potentially affect the lives of local people and the orangutans.

The Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi) has filed a lawsuit against the plan, claiming that the dam would affect the livelihood of farmers in the downstream area because it would arrest the flow of the river for 18 hours and the dam would be opened for the remaining six.

The operating company, PT North Sumatra Hydro Electric (NSHE), said the dam would use environmentally friendly run-for-river technology, which would allow it to flood only a small area.

Scientists, who confirmed last year that the Tapanuli orangutans were a separate species from their Bornean and Sumatran counterparts, said the existence of roads, power lines and the dam itself would pose increased risks to the already endangered species. In an article in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology this year, they wrote “when new roads appeared, apes disappeared”.

Siti claimed that the ongoing construction of the hydropower plant would have little effect on the orangutan population, as the dam was located on the forest’s border, where the cinnamon-haired great apes live.

The minister added that based on data collected by a team from the ministry, the construction of the power plant would not affect the orangutans’ habitat.

“Humans and orangutans can still co-exist,” Siti said recently, adding that the ministry had instructed the power plant’s developer to maintain the great apes’ existing corridor.

William F. Laurance, the director of the Center for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University and one of the writers of the article in Current Biology, said the government should never have approved the project in the first place because it was an environmental calamity for the world’s rarest great ape.

“For the [ministry] to try to monitor the project is merely providing ‘greenwashing’, or a false sense of security. It is not helping the Tapanuli ape and it is merely confusing the Indonesian people,” Laurance added.

The project is financially backed by a consortium of Chinese and international banks, while the dam’s contractor is Synohydro Corporation Limited, a Chinese state-owned hydropower engineering and construction company.

‘Efforts far from sufficient’

The ministry’s natural resources and ecosystems director general, Wiratno, backed Siti’s statement, saying that his team had yet to find any orangutan killed by humans so far.

However, he said he would like to see more effort from the company, adding that planting some fruit trees in a village near the project’s location to conserve the endangered species was far from sufficient.

The apes, whose hair is frizzier than their Bornean and Sumatran counterparts, are threatened by poaching and illegal logging. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the species on its red list, calling it critically endangered.

“I still want tangible, comprehensive and measured efforts from the NSHE on how it would prevent the orangutans from being disturbed during construction. [These efforts should also be] announced to the public,” Wiratno said.

Jatna, who is one of the authors of the Current Biology article, also criticized NSHE’s inadequate plan to protect the critically endangered apes.

“This big company will affect the species’ habitat. There should be an action plan on the orangutans’ protection, which should also be made available to the public,” Jatna said.

Biologist Erik Meijaard, who was among the researchers who confirmed that the Tapanuli orangutans were a separate species, said we should save them “because we can, and because it is ethically the right thing to do”.

“If we let species become extinct it shows that we are incapable of looking after the world in which we live. And if we are unable to look after the world in which we live, we, ourselves, will soon become extinct. If we want to survive on this planet we have to start living in greater harmony with the world around us, and taking care of other species is one crucial step in that. It is all part of growing up as humans,” he added.

Meijaard also reminded the Indonesian government of its regulations for animal conservation, which “spell out clearly that it is illegal to undertake actions that lead to the death or displacement of protected species or its nests”.

NSHE said the hydropower plant would be in line with nature conservation principles, adding that it would use “run-of-river technology”, which it claimed to be environment friendly. It confirmed that only 67.7 hectares in Batang Toru would be flooded and that excluded the orangutans’ habitat.

A senior adviser at NSHE, Agus Djoko Ismanto, said all mitigation studies that the power plant could potentially inflict, ranging from environmental to socioeconomic damages, have been completed by the company.

The company said it was committed to forest protection because a healthy forest meant a healthy river for its plant.