Future of orangutans in balance as company with Scottish roots searches for gold - Ian Redmond

Originally published in The Scotsman

GOLD… is the colour of an orangutan’s hair in the morning, as they rise, backlit by the sun in their treetop nests.  At that time of day, the rainforest canopy echoes to the haunting dawn chorus of gibbons and birdsong.   Sadly, all too frequently, that chorus is accompanied by the sound of chainsaws and heavy machinery.

Gold is also one more reason driving the destruction of orangutan habitat, or at least the human love of the precious metal found in deposits beneath the forest.  Controversially, some of that destruction on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is around a mine owned by a British company with Scottish origins, Jardine Matheson, and it adds to the pressure on the rarest species of orangutan.

Until recently, scientists recognised two species of Asia’s only great ape, each named after the island where they are found – the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan.  Then in 2017, genetic and morphological studies of the most southerly population of orangutans in Sumatra revealed that – to everyone’s surprise – the orangutans of Batang Toru are a separate species, named after the surrounding district, Tapanuli.  Unsurprisingly, no sooner was it described by science, the species was assessed by the IUCN as ‘Critically Endangered’ with a population of fewer than 800 and put on the Red List.

As Chairman of the Ape Alliance, a loose coalition of 100 organisations working for the conservation and welfare of all apes, I took a strong interest in this discovery.  In 2019, as parts of London were brought to a standstill by Extinction Rebellion, I found myself sitting in the board room of Jardine’s being reassured by the company’s senior management, that there were no plans to expand the Martabe Gold Mine into the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan.  Jardines, which has been controlled by the Keswick family since 19th century, had acquired the gold mine in 2018 through its Indonesian subsidiary Astra International.  The meeting had been arranged by Mighty Earth, an influential international organisation that tracks which companies are profiting from deforestation.

There are other threats to the Tapanuli: Indonesian civil society organizations have been working to halt the building of a hydro-electric dam that would flood a key corridor between two almost fragmented populations of Tapanuli orangutan.  The dam had been reported to be financed by the Bank of China, but in a series of meetings with the London and Jakarta branch managers we were assured that although a request for funding had been made to the Bank of China, the project was still under review.  To their credit, the Bank of China eventually decided not to fund the Batang Toru dam.   Work on the construction was further delayed by the global pandemic last year but not halted completely.

The risks of building a dam or a mine in an area prone to earthquakes were tragically highlighted by a landslide on 29th April this year, killing 13. A similar incident late last year killed one construction worker, and another was killed at the end of May, brining the total to fifteen lives lost.  The Indonesian Forestry and Environment Minister was reported to be evaluating the case for the dam, but construction continues.

Satellite images taken this year show that the Martabe mine is still expanding; about five hectares of forest were cleared between April and May.   This is on top of the 27.38 ha destroyed by the mining operation overall – 8.67 ha of which were destroyed since the purchase by Jardines in 2018.  Orangutans are threatened by loss of habitat to industrial agriculture– vast monoculture plantations of fast-growing trees for paper pulp as well as the more familiar palm-oil plantations.  Companies in the public eye such as Hershey, the US chocolate maker, are working to make their supply chains ‘deforestation-free.’  Last month, in response to a complaint by Mighty Earth, Hershey and others have called on Jardines to extend their ban on deforestation for palm oil across commodities—including gold.   Public pressure is a powerful force – we all have the power to influence the behaviour of corporations by the choices we make in our shopping.  But globally, deforestation continues.

Surely we can do better. This is the year the human world is supposed to agree on a new deal for nature.  The UN is hammering out a ‘post-2020 Biodiversity Framework’ to halt the loss of biodiversity and we are beginning the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.   The UNFCCC CoP26 climate talks due to be held in Glasgow in November are concluding the details of carbon markets, including valuing the central role of tropical forests.  All signs of hope that our species is coming to its collective senses and learning to live within the finite bounds of our one planet.  And yet for some, it seems to be business as usual – despite the predictions based on the best available science that business as usual will lead to ecosystem collapse on a global scale.   Now is the time for the global economy to move from an extractive view of nature, where nature is seen as an ‘externality’ with a value of zero until mined or logged to a more regenerative view.  Like all life on earth, including orangutans, humans depend on the ecosystem services provided by natural processes and yet they do not appear in our balance sheets.  If we want fresh air to breathe, fresh water to drink and food to put on the table, we must begin to value nature as the foundation for our economy, not an externality.  That is the true gold!


Ian Redmond OBE is Chairman of the Ape Alliance www.4apes.com, a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation www.orangutan.org.uk and a co-founder of www.Rebalance.Earth

Statement in Response to Tragic Mudslide in Batang Toru, Indonesia

Update: On May 28th, an additional foreign worker was killed as the result of another mudslide on the site of the the Batang Toru hydroelectric dam. This brings the total killed in the last 6 months to 15 people.

Baca dalam Bahasa Indonesia

Responding to the tragic news that at least 13 people have been killed or are missing in a mudslide on the site of the controversial Batang Toru hydroelectric dam project in Indonesia, Mighty Earth Campaign Director Amanda Hurowitz issued the following statement:

“Our hearts go out to the families of the people who have been killed or injured in this tragic disaster – both local community members and the Chinese workers at the site, far from home. We urge PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) and government authorities at all levels to provide immediate assistance and relief to those impacted and take action to prevent further damage and harm.

“Sadly, this disaster was likely an avoidable one. Scientists, environmental advocates and even reports received by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry have all warned that the terrain surrounding the proposed site for the Batang Toru dam was at medium to high risk of landslides because of high rainfall, hilly terrain and poor drainage. The project also sits near a fault line in an area prone to earthquakes and is being built, seemingly, without an adequate plan in place to mitigate the effects of development in this sensitive area. In fact, just five months ago, another landslide killed a Chinese dam worker, foreshadowing today’s tragedy.

“Our allies, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) have filed a lawsuit against the project in Indonesian court, claiming NSHE’s environmental impact assessment failed to consider endangered species, communities downstream, and the potential for ecological disasters. Additionally, WALHI has called for development to stop in this ecologically important, high risk area."

Roy Lumban Gaol, Deputy for Advocacy and Campaigns with WALHI North Sumatera, added:

"This incident is just another example of why this destructive project needs to be halted once and for all. There should be a moratorium on further development of the site. The Indonesian government should suspend the AMDAL for the project and conduct an urgent review of the project’s viability in terms of risk to worker safety, structural integrity linked to flooding and earthquake risk and the existential threat the dam construction poses to biodiversity, including the world’s most endangered great ape: the Tapanuli orangutan."



  1. This ill-conceived Chinese backed Indonesian dam project came to worldwide attention in 2017 when scientists made the stunning announcement that they had identified a new species of great ape living in the forests of Batang Toru. The Tapanuli Orangutan, numbering only 800, is the most endangered species of ape in the world. The dam and associated infrastructure by bisecting their habitat threatens their very existence.[i]
  2. Analysis of predicted electricity demand in the region has shown that the electricity that would be produced by the dam may not even be needed.[ii]
  3. This project has become a risky bet for major financiers. Multilateral development banks such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have also pulled out of the project[iii], as have private investment banks like Goldman Sachs.[iv] The Asian Infrastructure Development Bank has reportedly declined to finance the project. And, the Bank of China appears to have suspended its involvement pending a ‘review’.[v]
  4. The Tapanuli orangutan faces other threats associated with habitat loss, including land clearing associated with the Martabe gold mine, owned and operated by companies linked with to Astra Agro Lestari and British conglomerate Jardines Matheson.[vi]


  1. https://news.mongabay.com/2019/02/what-does-it-take-to-discover-a-new-great-ape-species/; https://www.mightyearth.org/2019/03/07/batang-toru/
  2. Dam that threatens orangutan habitat is ‘wholly unnecessary’: Report (mongabay.com)
  3. Bank of China’s Notes on the Hydroelectric Dam Project in Batang Toru of Indonesia (boc.cn)
  4. Dam that threatens orangutan habitat faces three-year delay (mongabay.com)
  5. Dam threatening world’s rarest great ape faces delays | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org)
  6. https://www.independent.ie/world-news/asia-pacific/fears-rare-orangutan-being-driven-to-extinction-by-gold-mine-39508396.html

Revealed: Newly-discovered orangutan species is 'being driven to extinction' by British firm's goldmine

The latest on the fight to save the Tapanuli orangutan:

The Tapanuli orangutan, which is the rarest great ape in the world, was discovered by scientists in 2017, the first great ape to be discovered for a century. It only lives in the Batangtoru Forest, in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia, and there are just 800 of the charismatic primates left.

Unfortunately for the great ape and those trying to protect it, its only habitat sits on top of a rich seam of gold - which is currently being mined by a British company. Environment minister Lord Goldsmith has said the company has a "moral obligation" to stop degrading the environment.

The business, Jardine Matheson, which has been run by the same British family, the Keswicks, since the Victorian era, bought the Martabe gold mine in 2018 through a subsidiary called Astra International. They have expanded it further into the habitat of the orangutan ever since. Based in Hong Kong, and domiciled in Bermuda, Jardine Matheson has business interests across the globe and owns the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain.

Read the full piece in The Telegraph, featuring research from Mighty Earth and MapHubs.

Dam Threatening Extinction of Tapanuli Orangutans Delayed at Least Three Years

The world’s rarest and most recently discovered great ape species received good news when North Sumatra Hydro Energy requested a three-year delay in the construction of the Batang Toru dam project in North Sumatra. The project came under intense scrutiny in Indonesia and around the world for threatening the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan, which was just identified in 2017, and has a population of fewer than 800.

The announcement of the delay follows Mighty Earth’s successful work with allies around the world to persuade the Bank of China to withdraw financing from the project.

In March of 2019, the Bank of China said it had “noted the concerns expressed by some environmental organizations” and promised to carefully review the project. Although Bank of China has not issued any further public statements, privately, representatives of the Bank have confirmed on numerous occasions that they will not fund the project.

Another partner in the hydroelectric scheme, the Indonesian state-owned utility company Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN), publicly confirmed in July of 2020 that the Bank of China has withdrawn its funding of the project.

Muhammad Ikhsan Asaad, who oversees the project for state-owned utility PLN, said the Batang Toru plant was supposed to start operating in 2022, based on the agreement between PLN and project developer PT North Sumatra Hydro Eenergy (NHSE).

“But it might be delayed to 2025, mainly because the drawdown from lender Bank of China is stopped due to environmental concerns as well as COVID-19,” he said.

The Bank of China’s withdrawal from the project follows that of other international lenders like the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group), Goldman Sachs, the Asian Development Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, who have all distanced themselves from the pariah project.

PLN officially announced the delay at a hearing in June of 2020, citing environmental campaigning as a reason for the delay.

"It is true that this is hampered by protests from NGOs related to environmental issues, the presence of monkeys, and others there. We have received requests for a 3-year development delay due to COVID-19," PLN's Managing Director, Zulkifli Zaini, said at the DPR Commission VII Hearing Meeting, Jakarta, Wednesday (6/17/20).

The dam project raised concerns about the risks of splitting the Tapanuli orangutan population into groups too small to survive - in the face of an electricity gut that renders the project economically dubious - the COVID-19 pandemic has led to falling demand for electricity shooting further holes in the already dubious rationale for the venture.

Falling demand for electricity during the pandemic has also affected the development of the project, according to Hydropower Plant Developers Association (APPLTA) chairman Riza Husni. Riza said on Thursday that PLN’s move to cut the demand projection for electricity during the pandemic has impacted hydropower players’ plans to develop 5,000 MW worth of new plants in Indonesia. “All of them haven’t begun development,” said Riza.

With COVID-19 also leading to shortages of workers - especially those being brought in by the project’s Chinese contractor, Sinohydro - this halt in construction is an opportunity for the government of Indonesia to heed the calls of the International Union for Conservation of Nature to officially stop development, allowing an independent and objective assessment to be conducted on the risks of development in Tapanuli orangutan habitat.

New Analysis: Batang Toru Hydroelectric Plant 'Unnecessary'

Will oversupply power and threaten first great ape extinction in recorded history

Baca dalam Bahasa Indonesia

JAKARTA -- A report, available in English, Bahasa and Chinese, by a leading international consultancy warns that the proposed USD 1.6 billion Batang Toru hydroelectric project in South Tapanuli Regency, North Sumatra, is not only entirely unnecessary for meeting Indonesia or North Sumatra’s future energy needs, but is also a critical threat to the local ecosystem and the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan. The report finds that the dam’s backers have mischaracterized, exaggerated, or just manufactured much of the rationale for the dam.

The report, entitled “Analysis of Electricity Demand in North Sumatra Province and the Planned Batang Toru Hydroelectric Power Plant’s Impacts,” and authored by Dr. David Brown finds that:

  1. North Sumatra is almost fully electrified, and rolling blackouts are largely a thing of the past. The province has a power surplus. In view of the addition of gas-fired peak power capacity added in 2017 and ongoing improvements in grid infrastructure, the building of Batang Toru would not materially improve access to nor the regularity of power supply in the province.
  2. Batang Toru will not replace “diesel power plants rented from overseas,” as there are no such plants in North Sumatra. There is a rented floating gas-fired power plant. But the climate change and balance of payments implications of burning gas are quite different from those of burning diesel.
  3. It is claimed that the commissioning of Batang Toru would result in reduction of a very modest .0016 to .0022 gigatonnes of annual CO2 emissions per year. But even these are overestimates. Reductions made possible by Batang Toru are more likely to be on the order of .0007 to .001 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. Regardless, potential emissions reductions represent on the order of just one tenth of one percent of Indonesia’s annual emissions but come with enormous environmental cost.
  4. In spite of the efforts of the owners and proponents of Batang Toru to tout the proposed dam as a provider of peak power, only half of the plant’s output would be peak power. The remainder is baseload power.
  5. The need for Batang Toru’s proposed peak power capacity is already diminishing, due to the existence of a 240 MW floating gas plant, and the likely future construction of 800 MW in new gas fired peak power which will come on line in 2022 (200 MW), 2024 (300 MW) and 2028 (300 MW). Like Batang Toru, these gas plants produce peak power during the night and could also produce power during the day, if needed.
  6. As for Batang Toru’s proposed contribution to the province’s baseload power, this is already being rendered unnecessary by the 330 MW Sarulla geothermal power plant which came on line in 2017 and 2018, and could be rendered even more superfluous by a 300 MW “expansion” in capacity at Sarulla starting in 2022, as well as a the “high possibility” of 240 MW in new geothermal power at Sorik Marapi. Another excellent option for the production of power during the day would be solar power; the report recommends that the Directorate General of Electricity and PLN should give greater consideration to solar power.
  7. Batang Toru will not put diesel power plants out of business, and thus will not alleviate the negative balance of payment impact to the nation caused by the import of diesel. However, the high capital costs of building Batang Toru will lead to the outflow of dollars from Indonesia and into the bank accounts of the Chinese contractor that will build the plant, as well as the Chinese holding company that owns the majority of the plant, all to the detriment of Indonesia’s balance of payments.
  8. Sinohydro, the contractor that is building Batang Toru has a global track record of fraud, non- standard practices, and corruption on three continents, all of which suggests that Batang Toru has significant construction and operations risks.
  9. The Directorate General of Energy’s overly robust projections of power demand have led to an overbuilding of power plants in North Sumatra. This may be a blessing in disguise, as it could mean that there are many excellent substitutes available for the peak power (Point 5 above) and baseload power (Point 6 above) that Batang Toru aims to produce without threatening one of Indonesia’s world famous natural treasure, the endangered Tapanuli orangutan.

Advocates for protecting the Tapanuli orangutan have seized on the report’s findings and called for a halt to the project.

The new report was produced by Dr. David W. Brown, a principal at Brown Brothers Energy and Environment (B2E2). Dr. Brown, who has 20 years of experience in advising public and private sector clients on the governance and environmental challenges of Indonesia's natural resource sectors, will appear in Jakarta on January 22 to present the report and discuss its findings with the local and international press. He will be joined by Mimi Surbakti from Srikandi Lestari Sumatera Utara who focuses on promoting the development of clean energy, Tri Mumpuni, a microhydro expert, as well as by Iqbal Damanik from Auriga.


The planned USD 1.6 billion North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) hydroelectric dam was first announced in 2012 and is scheduled for completion by 2022.

However, many traditional infrastructure lenders have refused to fund the project because of the disproportionate threat to orangutans and lack of benefits. Multilateral development banks like the World Bank Group have pulled out of the project, as have other private investment banks like Goldman Sachs. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has reportedly declined to finance the project. And while state-owned Chinese contractor Sinohydro has signed on to handle the project construction, the Bank of China recently communicated that it too has pulled its planned financing for the hydroelectric dam project.

The project will include the construction of a powerhouse, a substation, headrace and tailrace tunnels, a reservoir, spillway and related infrastructure, the installation of turbines, generators and transformers, and the laying of transmission lines.

Environmental Impact

Since it was first announced in 2012, the project has been the target of criticism, especially from environmentalists, who have said the dam would pose a threat to the area’s forest ecosystem and a potential risk to the lives and livelihoods of thousands of downstream local residents who rely on the river’s ecosystem for their survival for fisheries, agriculture, transport, and daily water needs. A fact- finding mission earlier this year found considerable apprehension about the project among local residents, many of whom have joined the opposition from international environmentalists in calling for the project to be halted.

The opposition intensified when it was discovered that the Batang Toru forest area, which is the project site, was also home to a newly discovered species of orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), which lives exclusively in that forest. Environmentalists and wildlife experts say the construction of the dam on the Batang Toru River would permanently fracture the orangutans’ habitat, decreasing connectivity between populations and contributing to the extinction of this rare species, which currently hosts a population fewer than 800 apes – and is the world’s most endangered great ape.

In addition to providing the Tapanuli orangutan’s only home, the Batang Toru ecosystem is biologically diverse with over 310 species of bird recorded, 80 species of reptiles, 64 species of frogs and toads, and more than 1,000 tree species.1 The area is also home to six other endangered and vulnerable primate species including siamangs (Symphalangus syndactylus) and agile gibbons (Hylobates agilis) in addition to the Tapanuli orangutan, making it one of the few areas in the world where three ape species coexist. The Batang Toru ecosystem is also home to other rare and threatened animal species including the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), the tapir (Tapirus indicus) and birds such as the Great Argus pheasant (Argusianus argus).

New Analysis

In light of the continued controversy, the Brown report sought to weigh the actual necessity of building the NSHE project against the harm it could cause.

“From an engineering standpoint, Batang Toru appears well-designed,” the report says. “However, the project’s infrastructure will destroy or isolate three out of five habitat blocks of a newly-discovered species, the Tapanuli orangutan, one of only seven species of Great Ape on Earth (or one of eight if humans are counted),” it warns.

The report identifies specific threats to the Tapanuli orangutan, noting that the rare species specifically “lives in the lowlands where the infrastructure associated with Batang Toru is to be built, and in three areas of adjacent highlands.”

The Tapanuli is especially vulnerable due to its fragmented population, and the report finds that the project would impact at least three of the groups. “Even proponents and opponents of Batang Toru appear to agree,” the report says, “that the infrastructure of the dam will lead to the displacement, and in some cases, death of the orangutans living in the third zone, and the permanent genetic isolation of those living in the fourth and fifth zones, more than 70 individuals.”


The new analysis is clear in its findings: “There may have been a rationale for the Batang Toru hydroelectric dam when it was proposed in 2012, before the identification of the Tapanuli orangutan, and in a very different energy situation. But there’s no need for it in 2020.”

“This research shows that Batang Toru hydroelectric power plant is not a necessary infrastructure for North Sumatra. Going forward, we have to prove who gains the most benefits from this forced construction,” Iqbal Damanik from Auriga said.

“I am fond of sustainable, environmentally friendly, and pollutant-free power plants. Microhydro, minihydro, and run off type are the answers since there is a larger number of rivers in Indonesia that needs to be protected with proper catchment area in order to maintain the water debit to flow as planned,” said Tri Mumpuni.

Mimi Surbakti also stated, “The fulfillment of electrical energy demand should not sacrifice the environment, especially if it threatens the extinction of a protected species. The government should be able to give ecological justice to save the livelihoods of people from the sources of nature’s degradation and exploitation.”

The report’s conclusion says, “Proponents of Batang Toru argue that driving the Tapanuli orangutan toward extinction is a price worth paying because the project will help to meet the current and future power needs of North Sumatra province. These defenders raise what they perceive as the climate change mitigation, peak power, and balance of payments benefits of Batang Toru. All of these arguments have been examined in this paper, and all have been found wanting.”

International Orangutan Day: Meet the Most Endangered Great Ape

Happy International Orangutan Day! Did you know that the rarest, most recently discovered great ape – the Tapanuli orangutan – is in danger of extinction?

Deep in the forested mountains of Sumatra, scientists identified a new species of great ape in 2017 – the Tapanuli orangutan. It was the first time since 1929 that a new species of great ape had been identified. But from the moment of discovery, the Tapanuli became the most endangered great ape in the world, with only 800 individuals left. The primary threat to their survival comes from a planned $1.6 billion hydroelectric power plant and dam project that will irreparably fragment their habitat.

Mighty Earth and our allies in Indonesia are fighting to protect the Tapanuli. We are asking Indonesian President Joko Widodo to cancel the dam project and explore alternative sources of renewable energy in the area.

We must act before the dam project permanently disrupts the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan and contributes to the first extinction of a great ape – our closest cousins in the animal kingdom – in all our recorded history.

This International Orangutan Day, join Mighty Earth in our fight to protect the Tapanuli orangutan and sign the petition to Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

5 Facts about the Tapanuli orangutan:

  1. The Tapanuli orangutan was discovered in 2017, and is the third species of orangutan, having been separated from Bornean and Sumatran orangutans for 10,000-20,000 years.
  2. Only 800 individuals remain, making the Tapanuli the most endangered great ape.
  3. The remaining Tapanuli orangutans are divided into three populations in the Batang Toru forest; only the largest of these populations (~500 individuals) is still considered viable.
  4. The Tapanuli orangutan has a smaller head than other orangutan species
  5. The long, high-pitch call of the male Tapanuli orangutan is a mix between the calls of the males in Borneo (short, high-pitched) and Sumatra (long, low-pitched). It also lasts longer and is delivered with more pulses at a higher rate.


Male orangutans of each species: 1. Bornean, 2. Sumatran, 3. Tapanuli. Photo credit: Tim Laman/Creative Commons, via New England Primate Conservancy

Resistance Grows to US$ 1.6b Dam That Threatens New Orangutan Species and Communities

Resistance Grows to US$ 1.6 b Dam That Threatens New Orangutan Species and Communities


Local opposition to the controversial plan to develop a US$1.6 billion dam and hydroelectric power generation project in South Tapanuli Regency, North Sumatra is expanding, according to a report from a fact-finding mission.  The report says that there is growing apprehension about the project among local residents, many of whom are now joining the long-standing opposition from local and international environmental groups in calling for the Chinese-funded project to be halted.  Meanwhile, the project developer, North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) still intends to complete the project by 2022 as planned, even as a nearby geothermal plant could provide more electricity than the dam without environmental damage.

Since it was first announced in 2012, the project has been the target of criticism, primarily because of the threat the dam poses to the area’s forest ecosystem and to the lives and livelihoods of the many thousands of residents in the area.  The opposition intensified when it was discovered that the Batang Toru forest area, the planned project site, is also home to a newly identified species of orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), which lives exclusively in that forest.  Leading conservation scientists say the construction of the dam on the Batang Toru River would fracture the orangutans’ habitat, bringing about the extinction of this rare and endangered species, of which about only 800 individuals remain.


Legal Letdown

The recent rejection by a local North Sumatra court of a lawsuit filed by Walhi, Indonesia’s largest environmental NGO, against the local government for ignoring environmental hazards when issuing a permit for the project, has stirred new anxiety among local residents.

It has since come to light that the company forged the signatureof a forestry researcher on its environmental impact statement (AMDAL) as it sought approval for the project. Nevertheless, clearance at the site of the project has already begun.

“Many people now feel helpless in the face of the failure of this lawsuit to take their side in this issue,” said a member of the fact-finding team, adding that fear and suspicion is becoming widespread among the local residents.

This legal development has brought new impetus to the controversy, with many local residents now joining a broad coalition of opponents to the project, intensifying efforts to persuade the Indonesian government and its Chinese and Indonesian partners to call a halt to the project.

Adding to the controversy, earlier this month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the leading government and civil society expert body on the conservation of species, publicly called for a moratorium on all projects impacting “the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan”.  The message was specifically aimed at urging a halt to the NSHE project.


Finding Facts

In an effort to bring more clarity to the situation, a fact-finding team, led by the Center for Orangutan Protection (CoP) (requested by the office of the Presidential Staff of the Republic of Indonesia), recently conducted on an on-site investigation in the Simarboru (Sipirok, Marancar and Batangtoru) area of Tapanuli, North Sumatra.  The primary mission of the fact-finding team was to assess feelings of the local population living near the site of the planned project.  The fact-finding team came to a number of conclusions regarding prevailing attitudes:

  • Disappointment. Many residents living in the Simarboru area were initially in favor of the development of the project as they were promised numerous jobs in the construction and maintenance of the dam and power plant.  However, it turns out that a majority have been rejected for jobs due to a lack of suitable work qualifications.  These people are now strongly opposed to the project.
  • Regret. While initial support for the project has wavered, many residents are now reluctant to voice opposition because they have already sold their land to NSHE for “minimum compensation”.
  • Helplessness. The fears of the local residents have been heightened by the failure of the Walhi lawsuit, which has fostered feelings that they are up against powerful interests.
  • Confusion. Many residents say they were not fully informed about the possible environmental effects of the project, leaving them in a state of confusion regarding what to expect.
  • Fear. The greatest concern to residents is the fear of flooding of their homes and farmland from the dam that, according to technical surveys, will siphon river water for 18 hours a day and then during the next six hours, when the sluice will be opened, flood the farmland in the area.  Several thousand people could have their homes and livelihoods affected by this action.

“It is obvious that the company (NSHE) as well as the government neglected the principles of Free Prior & Informed Consent (FPIC), the rights of society to express ‘Yes and How’ or ‘No’ to the project that impacts their resources. This is based on Int’l & National law in some countries and confirmed by the adoption of UN declaration about The Local Community Rights in 2008,” said Hardi Baktiantoro, Founder & Principal CoP.

While the issue of the growing dissatisfaction among the local population is primarily a domestic problem, there have also long been serious international concerns about the environmental impact of the project.  These concerns have been continuously raised by a loose coalition of international and domestic NGOs, including Mighty Earth, the Ape Alliance and the United Nations Environment Programme, and locally the Orangutan Information Center (OIC), Center for Orangutan Protection (CoP) and the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP).

Among the primary issues:

  • Extinction. Imminent extinction of the rare Tapanuli orangutan species due to fracturing of their forest habitat resulting from construction of the dam.
  • Threats. The Batang Toru Ecosystem is also home to the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger, pangolin and helmeted hornbill. Sun bears, tapir, serow and a host of other rare endangered species, including more than 300 bird species
  • Earthquakes. Potential risks to life and property from building the dam in a known earthquake-prone area, situated on a tectonic fault. Construction of a planned tunnel for the project could also exacerbate the risks of tectonic activity
  • Feasibility. While this project will endanger both human and wildlife existence in the area, studies show there are more feasible options for generating power in the area-primarily from geothermal sources, including the expansion of the existing Sarasulla Geothermal Plant
  • Eco-system. Re-settling of local populations will alter the ancient ecosystem of the area thus posing risks of long-term destructive environmental changes


International Ingredient

The Bank of China and the Government of China have indicated an interest in financially supporting this project.  From the beginning, communities in Indonesia targeted the Chinese government in efforts to dissuade them from participating in the project.  An open letter last year sent to the Chinese embassy in Jakarta spelled out the concerns, asking embassy officials to facilitate talks with Chinese investors and funders of the project in order to make them aware of the environmental and social risks posed by the project.

“We believe that every foreign investment in our country, whether from China or elsewhere, shouldn’t contribute to the erosion of people’s livelihoods and more importantly to the extinction of a critically endangered species,” the letter read.

As a result, there has been considerable dialogue between Jakarta, Beijing and international conservation organizations regarding how to proceed with this project.  Five years on from its inception, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which this project is a product, has been the subject of considerable international controversy.

Meanwhile, affected communities and conservationists continue to work to persuade the Indonesian government to reassess its stance on moving forward with its development.  An online petition has been posted seeking domestic and international support for calling a halt to Batang Toru.

While the votes are still being counted from the recent Indonesian presidential election, it is hoped that whoever is the winner will be willing to take another look at the potential negative impacts of this project.  It is also hoped that the slogan of “Wonderful Indonesia” can morph from a tourist campaign tagline to a real-life effort to take a unique opportunity to save the endangered Tapanuli orangutan species from extinction and instead, enshrine this magnificent great ape as a symbol of Indonesia’s unique national heritage.

“Basically we’re not fighting for ourselves. There are hundreds of rare new species and being protected by the world, biodiversity of Batangtoru ecosystem, and thousands of people who will be affected by the negligence of the company and involved parties in building this megaproject. We are still waiting for the government’s next step in protecting Wonderful Indonesia,” add Panut Hadisiwoyo, Founder Director Orangutan Information Center (OIC).(*)

Hey Mandarin! We’re not a fan--save the orangutan

This chant rang out in NYC and London, as demonstrators converged on Mandarin Oriental Hotel to call for an end to their complicity in the destruction of orangutan habitat. Mandarin is owned by parent company Jardine Matheson, whose corporate activities threaten to wipe out the world’s last remaining population of Tapanuli orangutans.   

At the NYC action, activists handed out flyers, sang and chanted, as they braved the pouring rain on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. They then went inside, where they delivered 32,000 petitions addressed to Mandarin.  


The petition has since nearly doubled to 55,000 signatories, as worldwide pressure builds.

Earlier in the day, in London, dozens of activist led by the renowned conservationist Ian Redmond rallied in front of Mandarin’s Hyde Park hotel. March 21 was chosen as the day of action to protect the Tapanuli orangutan to coincide with the UN’s International Day of Forests.

Tourist and other travelers don’t want to stay at establishments that are complicit in the deforestation of habitats of critically endangered species.  And yet Jardine Matheson--parent company to Mandarin Oriental--is standing idly by while rainforests are being bulldozed and threatening the Tapanuli orangutan with extinction.

The Tapanuli orangutan has a population of just 800, and all are found exclusively in the Batang Toru forest, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Jardines operates a mine in this forest--right in the heart of the Tapanuli’s only habitat. Worse, the mine has been drilling exploratory wells further encroaching on these orangutans’ territory. Additionally, Jardines and its subsidiary Astra have failed to take a stand against the Batang Toru dam, which would physically fragment the Tapanuli’s habitat and prevent these apes from having the level of genetic diversity necessary to sustain their population. Astra International is Indoneisa’s largest company; they have influence with the government who has the authority to halt this dam project.  We welcome positive engagement with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and strongly hope that they and their parent company act to protect biodiversity.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel: Save the Tapanuli Orangutan

Mighty Earth is joining the Ape Alliance and other allies in a dramatic protest to draw attention to the precarious state of the Tapanuli orangutan, an endangered ape threatened by industrial development. This great ape was discovered only recently, but is already in danger of extinction; it is estimated that there are only 800 of them left in the world.

Multinational corporation Jardine Matheson -- owner of the internationally acclaimed, 5-star Mandarin Oriental Hotels -- also owns Astra International, one of Indonesia's largest companies. They also recently purchased the Martabe gold mine, which lies within Batang Toru, Sumatra, the only habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan. This habitat, the orangutans, and the livelihoods of local communities are all threatened by the massive Batang Toru hydroelectric dam project that has already begun destroying the forest to make room for the dam and support infrastructure.

This Martabe mine uses a huge amount of electricity to operate its smelters.  In the name of meeting the demand for electricity, the Indonesian state-owned utility has sought backing from  Chinese financiers and hydro companies to build the Batang Toru dam. There is a massive geothermal energy plant just miles away from the mine that could be further expanded to provide more clean electricity than the dam ever would.

The Batang Toru dam  would permanently fragment the Tapanuli orangutan’s habitat, breaking the forest into areas that are too small for them to survive over the long-term.  If just one percent of the population-- that eight individuals is lost each year, the Tapanuli will go extinct. This orangutan species has no room for error in the fight for its existence.   

Jardines has the influence needed to help stop the dam -- but they have so far refused to act. These protests will encourage them to protect the most endangered great ape on earth. Similar protests in recent weeks have already brought the Bank of China, the project’s major financier, to the negotiating table.

Sign the petition!

Bank of China to Reevaluate Dam Project That Threatens Endangered Orangutan with Extinction

The Bank of China has announced it will re-evaluate its support for the Batang Toru dam project that threatens the Tapanuli orangutan. In response to this development, Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz released the following statement:

“We are grateful that Bank of China is taking the responsible step to reevaluate this project given the threat it poses to the Tapanuli orangutan and the entire Batang Toru ecosystem.

“The Batang Toru dam would permanently disrupt the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan and would contribute to the first extinction of a great ape – our closest cousins in the animal kingdom – in all our recorded history. We are therefore confident that this review will lead to the cancellation of the project. Mighty Earth is ready to participate in this re-evaluation process and help facilitate a positive outcome.

“We strongly support development in Indonesia, but that requires some attention to be paid to ensuring that infrastructure projects are located in the right place. The Batang Toru dam is proposed for exactly the wrong place, with a higher density of Tapanuli orangutans than surrounding areas. Given that fact, we are confident that upon review, the Bank of China will recognize that there are far superior development options, such as expanding the nearby Sarulla Geothermal Plant, which has more energy potential than the Batang Toru dam and doesn’t put the ecosystem at risk. We have also supported responsible run of the river hydro development in Indonesia in the past, and are happy to work with all stakeholders to find better locations and additional financing for hydro infrastructure.

“More broadly, we appreciate the significant gestures that China has made in recent weeks to address the global destruction of forests. This announcement builds upon Chinese state-owned food company COFCO’s emerging leadership in tackling agriculture-linked deforestation. Together, these actions suggest that China is starting to take real steps toward ensuring that overseas investments like its Belt and Road Initiative have a positive impact on our shared planet.

“Responsible Chinese international financing would be a huge boost for the environment and local peoples everywhere, and has the potential to dramatically change – for the better – the way that China is perceived around the world.”