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Jakarta Post

Court rejects challenge to Batang Toru dam

  • Apriadi Gunawan and Kharishar Kahfi

    The Jakarta Post

Medan and Jakarta   /   Mon, March 4, 2019   /   07:42 pm
Court rejects challenge to Batang Toru dam This handout picture from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) taken on Aug. 20, 2018 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, in North Sumatra. (SUMATRAN ORANGUTAN CONSERVATION PROGRAMME/AFP/Nanang Sujana)

The Medan State Administrative Court in North Sumatra has rejected a lawsuit filed by environmental group the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) against North Sumatra administration’s decision to issue permits for a hydropower project in the Batang Toru ecosystem.

Environmentalists and activists have urged that the project, which is costing Rp 22 trillion (US$1.5 billion), be scrapped because of its potential impact on the environment, especially on the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutans that live in and around the ecosystem.

The judges said the issuance of the permit, as well as a revised environmental impact analysis (amdal) document for the project, had passed the proper legal procedures and were in line with existing regulations.

“The judges reject every part of the plaintiff’s lawsuit,” presiding judge Jimmy C. Pardede said, reading the ruling during Monday’s hearing.

In the lawsuit, Walhi argued that the permit issuance was problematic given the lack of discussion and participation from locals, as well as potential ecological problems caused by the hydropower dam. The location of the site is also prone to earthquakes, the group argued.

During previous hearings, local residents testified in the courtroom that the company had never informed them about the project.

Judge Selvie Ruthyaroodh, however, said during Monday’s hearing that the bench regarded such testimonies as irrelevant to the case, because the residents lived in Batang Toru district rather than Marancar district, where the dam would be constructed.

Walhi lawyer Padian Adi Siregar lamented the judges’ ruling. The residents who testified, he said, would also be affected by the project, as they lived downstream of the river used by the Batang Toru hydropower plant.

The court also rejected expert testimony submitted by the plaintiff that the location of the project is on an active tectonic fault. The judges argued there were no restrictions on building a structure in the area.

Selvie added that the bench believed there had been sufficient studies on the project’s effects on animals living around the dam, including the Tapanuli orangutan, and it was satisfied mitigation measures were in place.

Walhi, however, questioned this assertion as the company had not provided such studies as evidence during the hearings.

The Tapanuli orangutans, whose frizzier coats differentiate them from their Bornean and Sumatran counterparts, are threatened by poaching and illegal logging. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the species on its red list, classing it "critically endangered" as scientists have only recorded 800 of the species living in nature.

“We will file an appeal and take any other remaining legal measures available,” Walhi’s North Sumatra office director, Dana Prima Tarigan, said. He added that the verdict did not reflect justice or fairness for the environment.

Apart from the lawsuit, Walhi was also involved in a protest on March 1 with an international network of activists against Bank of China, one of several international banks funding the project. The environmental group demanded the bank take concrete action by stopping its funding of the project because of its potential threat to the environment.

“Walhi believes this project is not in line with China’s Belt and Road Initiative promoted by President Xi Jinping, as the project won’t provide mutual benefit as promised by the Chinese government,” the group wrote in a statement.

PT NSHE senior executive for external relations, Firman Taufick, lauded the court verdict, saying the company could now focus more on the construction of the power plant. The project, which will produce 510 megawatts of electricity for North Sumatra, has been touted as “environmentally friendly”.

“PT NSHE asks for every element [of society] to support the construction of the power plant as it will provide clean electricity for the province,” Firman said in a press briefing in Medan on Monday. He also asked all experts and academics to work together with the company to draft tangible programs to conserve the Batang Toru ecosystem.