By Evi Mariani and Apriadi Gunawan in Jekarta and Medan
Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya paid a visit to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the palace last October 31 bearing good news. A group of scientists had confirmed the finding of a new orangutan species called Tapanuli orangutan, she reported to the President.
Less than a year later, the global scientists who researched the endangered species sent two letters to the Presidential Palace. The first letter in July said there was a Chinese-funded hydropower project in the orangutan habitat that “could be the death knell for the Tapanuli orangutan, by flooding a key expanse of its habitat and, even more crucially, by slicing up its remaining forest home with new roads, power lines, tunnels and other built facilities”.
The scientists believe only 800 Tapanuli orangutans remain in their habitat, the Batang Toru ecosystem in South Tapanuli regency, North Sumatra.
The apes, with frizzier hair than their Bornean and Sumatran counterparts, have been threatened by poaching and illegal logging. The planned dam, they believe, will make the species’ chance of survival slimmer.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the species – Pongo tapanuliensis – on its red list, calling it “critically endangered”.
The second letter, dated August 16, reiterated the scientists’ request, saying that they had collected scientific evidence that had led them to believe the project “should not have been approved initially by the North Sumatra provincial government”.
The company responsible for the project, PT North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE), denied the scientists’ claims, saying that the hydropower plant, designed to produce 510 megawatts of electricity, was an “environmentally friendly” project, which would not flood much of the Batang Toru ecosystem.
The NSHE said the hydropower plant, which used “run-of-river technology” and had Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro as the contractor and operator, would only flood 67.7 ha of area in Batang Toru, which is not a protected forest but an area penggunaan lain (nonforest estate). The company also argued that it had completed all the necessary documents required by the North Sumatra administration.
The company, which is financially backed by a consortium of Chinese and international banks, said it had taken measures to protect the orangutans and that it was also interested in protecting the forest because its project depended on the abundance of water in the Batang Toru River.
“We will join any effort in the future that aims to better the orangutan habitat,” Agus Djoko Ismanto, a senior adviser to the NSHE, said recently. “We are not planning to inundate 9600 ha,” Agus said.
The scientists, however, are not convinced.
One of them, Bill Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at Australia’s James Cook University, said in-depth scientific analysis of the conservation status and threats to the Tapanuli orangutan had found that when new roads appeared, apes disappeared.
The NSHE confirmed that besides the 67.7 ha that will be flooded with water; about 600 ha will be used to build roads, tunnels and other infrastructure.
In the letter addressed to the President in July, 25 scientists from all over the world, including Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia, said that instead of approving the dam project, the government should have had initiated forest restoration efforts in Batang Toru.
“Roads are a particularly insidious threat because they open the ape’s habitat to poachers, illegal loggers, miners and land encroachers. Recent scientific analysis shows that the Tapanuli orangutan survives only where roads are almost entirely absent,” the letter said.
1.3 million supporters
Environmentalists and others all over the world have voiced their support for the scientists. A global campaign to save the species began early this month and had gained more than 1.31 million supporters.
“As citizens from across the world, we urge you to save the last 800 Tapanuli orangutans from extinction by canceling the Batang Toru hydropower dam project. The fate of this entire species rests in your hands, “the petition on avaaz.org said.
Protests from national environmentalists have also escalated into a lawsuit. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the regional administration’s decision to issue permits for the power plant.
One of the organisation’s lawyers, Golfrid Siregar, said the permit issuance was problematic on account of the lack of discussion and participation from locals.
Separately, the director of Walhi’s North Sumatra office, Dana Prima Tarigan, said the power plant could also cause an ecological disaster, as it would be located near an earthquake-prone area in the province.
In response to the growing calls, the Environment and Forestry Ministry had held a coordination meeting with the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry and the company to discuss possible solutions.
“After the meeting, we established a joint team comprising personnel from both ministries, the company, regional administration and the Indonesian Orangutan Forum [Forina], which is task with looking for alternatives to be applied in the area,” the ministry’s natural resources and ecosystems director-general Wiratno said last week.
One of the solutions offered by the company, he added, was to build an “orangutan corridor” that would help the animal migrate between the two forest areas in Batang Toru.
Should the concept be applied in the area, it will become the first corridor to be implemented in Indonesia.
“It, however, was still an idea. The team will need to go into the area first before offering possible solutions. We are still waiting for data from the field,” Wiratno said.
Kharishar Kahfi contributed to this story for The Jakarta Post from the capital of Jakarta.