Hydroelectric project in Sumatra risks extinction of world’s rarest orangutan

As well as threatening the home of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan, environmentalists say the Batang Toru hydropower plant in Indonesia jeopardises the livelihoods of 130,000 people and increases the risk of landslides
<p>The Batang Toru hydropower project area seen from a distance in South Tapanuli regency, North Sumatra. Access to the project area is restricted. (Image: Tonggo Simangunsong)</p>

The Batang Toru hydropower project area seen from a distance in South Tapanuli regency, North Sumatra. Access to the project area is restricted. (Image: Tonggo Simangunsong)

The construction of a hydroelectric power plant in Sumatra is risking the livelihoods of local communities, increasing the risk of disasters and threatening the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s rarest great ape. Suspicions persist around the 2019 death of an activist who had filed a lawsuit against the project.

The Batang Toru hydropower plant is being built in the Batang Toru forest area of South Tapanuli regency in North Sumatra province. It has a total investment of over 21 trillion Indonesian rupiahs (USD 1.6 billion) and was initially planned as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The preconstruction phase began on 21 December 2015 following the signing of a power purchase agreement between PT North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE) and the State Electricity Company (PLN). Ground-breaking for the plant took place on 4 May this year.

The plant is being built by NSHE in collaboration with Sinohydro, a Chinese engineering and construction company.

The project was originally funded by Bank of China, but it announced a review after receiving a number of objections from environmentalists. Doni Latuparisa, executive director of environmental group WALHI (Friends of the Earth) North Sumatra, said: “In 2019 the Bank of China stopped funding this project.” Neither he nor other local environmentalists knew who is now funding the project. Construction is continuing.

Tapanuli orangutan, Batang Toru, Sumatra,  Orangutan Information Centre
The Tapanuli orangutan is the rarest orangutan species in the world. It is endemic to the Batang Toru forest, and it is feared that it will be increasingly threatened by the clearing of forest areas for hydroelectric power projects. (Image: Orangutan Information Centre)

The entire global population of Tapanuli orangutans – the rarest orangutan species on Earth – is restricted to this small area of Sumatra. The population is now estimated at fewer than 800 individuals. “If this project continues, these animals will be increasingly threatened with extinction,” Latuparisa said. The Tapanuli orangutan was confirmed to be a distinct species only in 2017. Now, the Batang Toru hydropower project threatens to take away its habitat.

The plant has a planned capacity of 510 MW and is located on the Batang Toru River. The area likely to be affected includes three sub-districts in the South Tapanuli regency: Sipirok, Marancar and Batang Toru. They encompass 17 villages.

There will be a 66-hectare reservoir behind the dam. “The company will dam the water for 18 hours and open the water [gates] for six hours. It is feared that this will cause an imbalance in the ecosystem. For 18 hours the Batang Toru River will dry up and for six hours it will overflow and have the potential for flooding,” said Latuparisa.

Batang Toru River, Sumatra, Tonggo Simangunsong
The new hydropower plant is being built on the Batang Toru River, which flows from the Batang Toru forest and across rural areas (Image: Tonggo Simangunsong)

Risk of landslides

Already, the impact of construction on the hill slopes is evident. When The Third Pole visited South Tapanuli at the end of April 2021, several signs warning of landslides were visible on the roadside.

A few days later, a landslide swept away a coffee shop in Wek I village, adjacent to the Batang Toru hydropower project site, killing at least nine people. One of the victims was a worker from China who was an employee of NSHE. An official statement from the North Sumatra provincial government said 13 people went missing in the landslide.

NSHE denies that the disaster was in any way connected to the project. “It needs to be emphasised that this incident was a natural disaster,” said Firman Taufick, PT NSHE’s communication and external affairs director.

But questions remain. The South Tapanuli area, especially Batang Toru, is prone to landslides, a study published in 2019 found. “Since the beginning of the development process, WALHI North Sumatra was worried that the project would cause a disaster in the Batang Toru forest area,” said Roy Lumbangaol, the organisation’s campaign manager.

Teuku Abdullah Sanny, a geologist and geophysicist at the Bandung Institute of Technology, said that the land clearing needed for the dam would exacerbate landslides. “As soon as the land is cleared, where the trees are cut and demolished the soil is in direct contact with the air. [When] it rains, the water will be absorbed into the soil; as a result, the soil expands, consequently reducing the binding capacity of the soil,” he told The Third Pole.

The region is also highly earthquake-prone, raising concerns around the dam’s safety. The Batang Toru Ecosystem lies on the Sumatran Fault, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Since 1919, there have been 947 earthquakes in Aceh and North Sumatra. Since 1965, 60 earthquakes have occurred within a 25-km radius of the planned dam site. In 2008, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale occurred just 10 km below the Earth’s surface only 4.1 km from the site of the dam.

There are fears that there could be a repeat of the 1892 Tapanuli earthquake, which measured 7.5-7.7 on the Richter scale and struck the Angkola segment in the Sumatra Fault Zone, within a few kilometres of the dam site. There are concerns that the dam could even collapse in an earthquake.

Broken promises and threatened livelihoods

The Batang Toru Ecosystem covers an area of ​​141,749 hectares and is one of Sumatra’s last intact forests.

“The Batang Toru forest is a life support [system]… the forest is the mother of all rivers… It is not only important for human life, but also endemic and protected species,” said Onrizal, a forestry expert and Tapanuli orangutan researcher from the University of North Sumatra.

Batang Toru forest, Sumatra, Indonesia, Tonggo Simangunsong
The entire global population of Tapanuli orangutans is restricted to the Batang Toru forest (Image: Tonggo Simangunsong)

Around 130,000 people live in the area. The majority are farmers growing rubber, coffee, durian, sugar palm, rice and secondary crops such as tomatoes, chilies and vegetables.

The hydropower project has received an operating permit covering an area of ​​6,598.35 hectares; 669 hectares have been obtained from the community. An area of ​​447 hectares will be used for the construction of a dam, quarry area, spoil bank, powerhouse and supporting facilities.

There are allegations that NSHE bought community land cheap during preconstruction in 2017, that it had promised to pay a reasonable price and provide employment to local people, and these promises have not been kept.

After I sold my land, the money I received from the company was not enough to buy land in another area
Derlan Hutabarat

“I regret selling our land because our land is getting [smaller], leaving less area for farming,” said Parsaulian Simanjuntak, a resident of Aek Batang Paya village, Gunung Hasahatan hamlet, which was the first village where the promise was reportedly made by the company. He was willing to sell his land because it was to meet the country’s electricity needs.

“After I sold my land, the money I received from the company was not enough to buy land in another area,” said Derlan Hutabarat, 65, who sold 10 hectares to the company. Now Hutabarat farms on what little remains of his land.

Residents say the company had promised to pay Rp 8,000 (about USD 0.56) per square metre for land with standing crops and Rp 5,000 per sq m for fallow land. But, they say, it actually paid Rp 5,000 per sq m for land with standing crops and Rp 4,000 per sq m for fallow land. Most residents had standing crops of rubber, palm sugar, coffee and cocoa when they sold their plots.

Village in Batang Toru, Sumatra, Indonesia, Tonggo Simangunsong
One of the villages in the highlands adjacent to the Batang Toru forest area, in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra. The fertile soil allows local people to depend on agriculture, such as rice, vegetable and fruit crops. (Image: Tonggo Simangunsong)

Opposition to Batang Toru hydropower project met with threats

According to its official website, PT NSHE is a consortium: 52.82% shares are owned by PT Dharma Hydro Nusantara, 25% by PT Pembangkitan Jawa Bali Investasi and 22.18% by Fareast Green Energy Pte Ltd.

NSHE has compiled an AMDAL (Environmental Impact Assessment) addendum twice as a condition for project development, in 2014 and 2016. The first was for a power plant project with a capacity of 500 MW, while the 2016 addendum was to increase the capacity to 510 MW.

In the 2016 AMDAL document seen by The Third Pole, the company changed the location of a planned quarry from Sitandiang village in Sipirok district to Marancar Godang and Simaninggir villages in Marancar district.

This change was announced through a Governor’s Decree, and WALHI went to court against it. “The change will increase deforestation, which has an impact on potential disasters that will occur in the fault-prone Batang Toru area,” said Roy Lumbangaol, campaign manager for WALHI North Sumatra.

The Medan State Administrative Court (PTUN) rejected WALHI’s charges against the Governor’s Decree in March 2019. The environmentalists appealed to the Supreme Court but lost there as well.

Then, on 6 October 2019, WALHI’s lawyer Golfrid Siregar died, three days after being found at midnight unconscious on an overpass in Medan city. Siregar had serious injuries to his eyes, head and hands. His laptop, identification card, mobile phone and wedding ring were missing. Police assessed the incident as an accident due to a fall from his motorcycle. However, WALHI felt there were irregularities associated with Siregar’s death and suspected that it was related to his suing NSHE.

“We suspect this is related to the lawsuit,” said Lumbangaol. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for a thorough investigation, noting that Siregar had received several threats since the initial lawsuit was filed in 2018. NSHE has denied any involvement.

“The nature of Siregar’s death and the threats he received raise numerous alarm bells,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at HRW. “All those concerned about Indonesia’s environment will be watching the authorities to ensure that a credible investigation occurs, and that any crime associated with his death is appropriately prosecuted.”